Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Will to Self-Alter

When Joan and I got married, we were not the only residents of Apartment 3E. We were the only ones who paid rent. And we were the only ones who had keys. But what those advertisements in the subway insisted regarding the quaintly-named roach motels we bought by the dozen--que las cucarachas pueden entrar, pero no pueden salir—seemed more true of our building on West 111th Street than it did of the actual devices themselves that we were counting on to rid ourselves of our unwanted and disgusting roommates. Why I remember that in Spanish, a language I don’t speak, more easily than in English (and how can there not have been an English version?), I have no idea. Perhaps it was the graphic, which I still remember clearly, of a fierce Hispanic-looking woman wearing a colander on her head and leaning a toilet plunger over her shoulder as she sallied forth to do battle with the same varmints that were as unwanted in our home as the ad copy made it crystal clear they were unwelcome in hers.  We were clearly in the same boat, the three of us. And if her battle cry was in her native Spanish, then so was ours going to be!

I was better about it than Joan. (Joan is an outdoors girl from Ontario, but her idea of living with animals involves sharing the forest with moose and caribou rather than sharing a kitchen with revolting hexapedes.) But I wasn’t too happy either. Mind you, it wasn’t us. Our kitchen was, as it still often is, spotless. We didn’t leave food around, and least of all overnight. We cleaned up our crumbs! But the entire building was filled with them and no single apartment’s efforts seemed sufficient to turn the tide.  Eventually, we solved our problem the simple way—by moving to Israel for a year and never returning to Morningside Heights. But, although I remember our years on 111th Street fondly (and still respond very favorably to the smell of Indian cooking that was a permanent feature of life on the third floor at 600 West and which provided the ongoing olfactory backdrop to our lives as newlyweds), I never developed the Manhattanite’s native tolerance for the cockroach. Unlike my father (who for some obscure reason only possibly related to the dialectics of Brownsville English, added an “a” between the “k” and the “r” to create a medial third syllable), I pronounced their name in two syllables. But I never liked them. 

Nor have I come to remember them fondly, even all these years later. But over the years, they have earned my begrudging respect (if not quite my admiration). For one thing, they have survived on earth for about 300,000,000 years, which is about 299,800,000 years, give or take a few millennia, longer than our own species has wandered the planet. For another, they are apparently close to indestructible. The oft-repeated claim that they can survive almost anything is apparently at least mostly true. The Discovery Channel conducted an experiment in which a mass of cockroaches were exposed to 1000 radon units of cobalt 60, which dose of radiation would kill any human being in ten minutes, and half the cockroaches survived. When they upped the ante to 10,000 radon units, about the amount released at Hiroshima, at least ten percent of the roaches survived. (If you are reading this electronically, click here to see the results of the experiment in more detail.) But it is not to discuss the cockroaches of wartime Japan that I write today. Perhaps some other time!

The reason I am writing about this topic today, actually, is because of a study that was published just this last week in the journal Science.  Undertaken by Ayako Wada-Katsumata, Jules Silverman, and Coby Schal, all of them professors at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, the study effectively demonstrated that cockroaches have the internal capability to defend themselves against sweet-tasting poisons by self-altering their own body chemistry to make things taste bitter and unpalatable that under normal circumstances would taste sweet to them. (To read the abstract, click here.)  This is, of course, not the same as an insect developing a tolerance for some variety of poison that is regularly and repeatedly used against it. It is far more interesting than that, I think, because this is not just a case of poison not working well but one about the ability of a living thing to morph into a new iteration of itself that, instead of merely mimicking its prior behavior (and dying in the process), is now not vulnerable to things that just months or weeks earlier could easily have cost them their lives.

How exactly this all works remains an unsolved puzzle, but it appears to have something to do with the way cockroaches taste things. We human beings taste with our taste buds, which limits us to tasting with our tongues. But cockroaches taste with something called “taste hairs” that appear in many different parts of their bodies. How cool would that be, being able to taste with our elbows or our noses? Or with our big toes!  But the reality is interesting enough without shifting into fantasy. These “taste hairs” work because they contain different kinds of nerve cells that react to flavors and send messages bearing decipherable code to the cockroach’s tiny brain, which is how the bug knows if something is sweet or bitter. Those are the only two options, apparently: sweet or bitter. (There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.) When something sweet touches the nerve cell that is programmed to detect sweetness, it sends along a message that makes the cockroach want to eat the substance in question. When something bitter touches the bitter receptor cell, the message discourages the roach from wanting to eat the substance in question.  What the scientists in North Carolina discovered was that the cockroaches—this is, in and of itself, amazing—that the roaches somehow understood that they were being tricked into eating poison and—and this, even more so—were able to switch around the receptors’ messaging system so that the sweet poison would send a message to the cockroach’s brain discouraging it from eating the substance, thereby avoiding being poisoned to death.

So much remains unknown. How could cockroaches be savvy enough to understand that they—not the individual, but the group, the genus, the whole bug nation—is in danger of being poisoned? How could they possibly be sophisticated enough to realize that an effective defense against poison would be for the sweet, seductive flavor of the toxic substance to trigger the “bitter” response rather than the “sweet” one?  How can evolutionary change—and what is this what an example of if not evolutionary change?—possibly happen so quickly, in this case in a matter of a few years? (The behavior studied by the scientists in North Carolina has only been observed since the 1990s.) Can evolutionary change be willed into existence? Do cockroaches even possess the will to self-alter? Do they have that level of insight into the world in which they live? (That hardly seems possible, but what alternate explanation could there be?) These are all good questions. And none as yet has a very good answer. Who ever thought cockroaches could be this interesting?

For me, all this science prompts a different set of questions entirely. We too, after all, are evolutionary creatures, we human beings. As the countless millennia have passed, we too have altered and developed as we morph into versions of our former selves more suited, or at least ideally more suited, to the world as it itself has developed along into its latest iteration. But we clearly lack the cockroaches’ ability to do this in response to stimuli over the course of decades rather than over the course of eons.  The announcement a few weeks ago, for example, by scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii that carbon dioxide had reached an average daily level over 400 parts per million, a concentration of the most heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere the earth has not seen in millions of years, was greeted, as far as I can determine, mostly with yawns by the general populace.  (You can read more about it by clicking here.)  I’m sure environmental scientists all over the world took the announcement as a great call to arms…but the rest of the world seems to me to be in desperate need of the cockroaches’ ability to self-alter in the face of pending disaster. For the roaches, the task was simple: if sweet equals death, then sweet needs to taste bitter. How they managed that, who knows? But it’s the lacking human parallel ability that interests me even more. (I’m a rabbi, after all, not an entomologist.) Will human beings respond to this news, which Maureen Raymo, a Columbia University scientist who works at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, characterized now as part of an “inevitable march towards disaster,” by self-altering, not to find sweet bitter and bitter sweet, but to find boring riveting, yawn-provoking stimulating, and ecological-tedious deeply and personally challenging. In that same article about the carbon dioxide, a Yale University professor was quoted as saying, not (I thought) bitterly but with resignation, that the time to act forcefully on our own behalves was probably yesterday.

But, as Chad and Jeremy already knew decades ago, yesterday’s gone. So the question isn’t whether we need a time machine to deal with this disaster. That would be nice, but even if we did possess the ability to go back in time to address this issue by heading it off at the pass, we would still need the roaches’ ability to self-alter from complacent beings who find it possible to be bored by looming environmental disaster on a scale we non-scientists can barely imagine into the kind of thoughtful creatures (and the sapiens part of Homo sapiens specifically references intelligence as our species’ most characteristic feature) that have the good sense to be terrified by truly terrifying things. Tasting sweetened poison and finding it bitter, and then specifically not ingesting it, is a good model for us to follow. If bugs can do it, then my sense is that so can we…if we could only summon up the will to self-alter as productively and as beneficially to our long-term existence as those unappealing invertebrates my father only called cockaroaches.

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