Charles Darwin was my High School Biology Teacher and
Taught Me to Think Atypical Thoughts

My only formal biology course—aside from medical School itself—was freshman biology in college,  Darwin taught me to think as he did when I read The Origin of Species at age fourteen (1937).  The basis of Darwinian evolution is that natural (random) variation in traits and natural selection of the fittest survivors explains improvement in populations including even new species.  Two interpretations of mine flowed easily from that:

1) Thorough dark adaptation requires about 30 minutes.  This happens to be the duration of tropical twilight, the fastest twilight worldwide.  Prior to artificial light there was no advantage to faster adaptation. 

2) It takes several days to get used to high altitude.  Prior to modern transportation there was no way for us to get to high altitude more quickly.  (Birds have much better adaptation.)  Some more complicated examples have occurred to me occasionally throughout my most recent 78 years (92 minus 14).

3) Forty years after reading Darwin’s statement that he was puzzled by our ability to make and appreciate music, I stumbled on the explanation.  Voice recognition is part of prompt recognition friend or foe and has enormous survival value.  Thus we had acquired our ability to gain much information from sound by “survival of the fittest” before we made or appreciated music.  This insight came to me ten years after we entered the Peace Corps in 1968 accompanied by our three youngest daughters ages 8 to 14.  They had heard that the Peace Corps was having too much trouble recruiting physician volunteers because most of them had dependent children so the Peace Corps was going  accept midcareer physicians and  permit them to take the children along.  My wife and I had frequently talked of doing something like that when our children were grown.   So these three children declared a family meeting and the message was “Put up or shut up; now we can all go.”  Their personal commitment was awesome and our experience in Afghanistan was a big success all around (it was very safe there then).

The Peace Corps was quite loose about such things; so 14 year old Margaret, in her wisdom, attended all the training that actual adult volunteers get including having a class of Spanish-speaking kids learning English.  Ten years later one of the volunteers that she knew casually during Peace Corps training only, made a long distance phone call from California to Manhattan and got a wrong number where Margaret was a house guest.   Her hostess was busy, Margaret answered the phone, recognized the voice, and replied in their mutual exotic language, Farsi---they both freaked out.  I identified that this episode confirms that voice recognition entails so much automatic memory of sound to achieve voice recognition by permitting music appreciation to get a free ride on that much more vital ability of differentiating friend or foe.   A further surmise on my part tends to be confirmatory---absolute pitch might be an accompaniment---musicians may have shot themselves in the foot by changing the standard frequency of A above middle C several times during my lifetime.  I did find confirmation that primitive, illiterate people and some animals do indeed have absolute pitch 1). 

4) Here is an evolutionary explanation for drug addiction.  This occurred to me after learning that many insects avoid predation (being eaten) by eating poisonous food in doses that are fatal to other insects.  Example: monarch butterflies eat poisonous milkweed.  Drug seeking behavior, total tolerance to very toxic doses, and the ability of former addicts to get re-addicted promptly to regain the advantage of being poisonous after temporary shortage of the special food, are part of the addiction package for us and the butterflies.  The evolutionary explanation: an early pre-terrestrial ancestor of insects and vertebrates was already eating poisonous food in the marine environment.  Insects benefitted from this inheritance, and it hasn’t yet been bred out of us—compare with us having an appendix with no apparent current usefulness.  I looked up some esoteric biology.  Acorn worms (their heads look like acorns) are the nearest surviving marine animal to the common ancestor of insects and vertebrates.  Incidentally, is there a modern descendant of acorn worms still eating poisonous food to avoid predation in the marine environment?

I have met no one who had heard of these explanations, but all were amazed at how plausible they seem---especially the one for addiction. The Origin of Species is the only groundbreaking scientific treatise written for the general public.  For more details see   Next some generic atypical thoughts perhaps inspired by thorough reading Darwin in youth.

5) My experience with Charles Darwin has caused me to read several other forbidden books.  Reading The Book of Mormon turned out to be a laboratory of how to read sacred texts critically.  After only a few pages I encountered the description of the golden tablets of the text as received from the angel.  A back of the envelope calculation of their approximate weight yielded 1200 pounds.  A very cooperative librarian obtained copies of several additional editions of the Book of Mormon---all had entirely different versions of the description.   When I persuaded her to seek no more editions, I explained that I was guilty of arrogant complacency.

6) I reread  the bible in the same spirit as my reading of the Mormon book at age fourteen and discovered something that “wouldn’t play in Peoria”  (a phrase that refers to test marketing Broadway plays in the hinterland of our Midwest) so I didn’t mention it for 75 years.   The first chapter of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, is a listing of the ancestors of Jesus proving that Jesus was a direct descendant of King David.   The alleged virgin birth of Jesus breaks the logic of all the so-in-so begat so-in-so. 

 7) The most creative result of my reading at age fourteen was the realization that Sigmund Freud was something of a stuffed shirt.  This interpretation was confirmed by an action of George H. Whipple, founding Dean of the University of Rochester School of Medicine, New York, where Mary and I met.  Dr. Whipple declared that psychiatry would be an elective course for seniors.  I did find time and teachers to educate me about psychiatry in the spirit that Dr. Whipple inspired by his agreement with my reaction to Freud.   Incidentally, cognitive behavior therapy (more or less the replacement for Freud’s psychoanalysis) is useful even for many patients without psychiatric problems.  Let me illustrate by what was a memorable encounter with a patient. The patient was a successful contractor with high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.  I told him that he needed a medical epiphany (conversion).  We had an in depth conversation about what this meant.  He decided of his own free will that he would have to sell his contracting business if he was to succeed in taking care of three complex and threatening medical conditions. He succeeded and his medical problems evaporated.  When he came to see me, he would say, “Here is your Catholic convert” (he knew that I was not Roman Catholic). He had become the Bishop’s representative to the Vatican making many trips to Rome.

In medical school the standard response to a question by a patient about the physician’s religious affiliation was to reflect the patient’s anxiety about their diagnosis and prognosis.  Another memorable patient was a nun who clearly wanted to know my religious affiliation.   When I told her that I was a transcendental ecumenist, she replied promptly and enthusiastically, “I am one of those too.”

8) Are we looking for extraterrestrial life as a place to exploit and colonize?  My emphatic opinion about this question from all my study early and late in my life is that even if we find many planets that seem to be capable a supporting life, they are too far away for any realistic hope of access.  Steven Hawking wasn’t joking when he said, “We should not seek to communicate with extraterrestrials because they might find us and treat us we did the Indians.” There follow some additional insights not directly from Charles Darwin, but they in the same genre.

9) The modern almost universal student debt for higher education is a national disaster if only because it saps youthful idealism.  We have explained this to our grandchildren while helping them get educated and otherwise being generous with potential heirs; and they have no mixed feelings about our continued health and survival---our estate is going to self-destruct. See Atypical Thoughts on Taxes and Estate Planning:

10) Finally, a suggestion about how to teach foreign languages with a perfect accent even to adults. Let us start with an International Anthem and/or a series of children’s play songs to be written and composed by a skunk works posse. A brief account of how this idea got its start follows.      

I tried to learn Farsi (Persian) at age 44.  My vocabulary was good enough for ordinary conversation, but illiterate people couldn't understand me (they thought I was speaking English).  Our 8 year old daughter knew fewer words than I, but she had a perfect accent. The uncanny thing was that she could be my "translator" without even knowing all that she was saying.  In other words she corrected my pronunciation of words that she didn't know. The following idea occurred to me 30 years later---simple to express, but quite difficult to carry out.  I will appreciate any comments that you may have.

Our primary purpose will be accomplished by including all the phonemes of human languages in the songs (phonemes are the smallest discrete elements of spoken language).  As a result all humanity would be empowered to learn each other's languages with a perfect accent even starting as adults because we would know all the phonemes already from our universal songs.

Children all over the world sing play songs.  From my childhood I remember for jump rope, “…’pendicitis said the doctor, ‘pendicitis said the nurse, ‘pendicitis said the lady with the alligator purse….” even though it is close to nonsense. Meaning can be imposed upon nonsense as illustrated by Lewis Carol’s Jaberwoky or by a joke from the internet: “How do we know that Mahatma Gandhi had bad breath?  Otherwise, how else would Mary Poppins have written, ‘super-calloused, fragile mystic hexed by halitosis?” (Say it out loud in cadence.)     

Our skunk work posse (a phrase coined by early Ford Motor Company engineers) would be a self-assembled group of experts undertaking an important oeuvre as volunteers without commercial sponsorship. (see footnote on next page) Our posse, like the original skunk works posse, would need to be composed of experts from diverse fields including a well-known and competent coordinator, multilingual literary people (Isabelle Allende?), many linguists, and others to be recruited as needed such as UNESCO and various religious leaders.  Initial music could be borrowed from sources as varied as J. S. Bach to Sir Arthur Sullivan; but, for the final version, newly composed music compatible with various cultural traditions would be highly desirable.  A lab school could provide children’s voices for the recording.  Persuading the children not to attempt any phonemes they, as individuals, couldn’t pronounce would be only a minor problem.

Meaningful humanitarian, conservation, and universal religious precepts could be subtly incorporated into a scaffold of languages and hopefully be nearly comprehensible in some of the languages.  Commentaries in many languages giving a key to meaning as Lewis Carol did in Alice through the Looking Glass would be useful—most of our song will be near nonsense for all of us.  (Much later in the book Lewis Carol finally told us the meaning of the poem Jaberwocky’s nonsense). 

* I googled “skunk works posse” and got the 2007 version of this article as the second or third item.  I also found that the first skunk works effort was in 1904 about how to decrease the weight of Model T Fords.  I first heard of skunk works posses as an intern at Henry Ford Hospital in 1946.  My recollection of what I heard then is that some Ford Motor Co. engineers had an idea that the boss did not immediately accept so they developed it on their own time and had it all ready to go when Henry finally perceived its merit.  Bottom line: I may be a minor expert on the history of skunk works posses.

Or our posse might prefer, if all the phonemes could be sufficiently concisely included, to use proverbs from many cultures as a nonsense equivalent—the various exotic languages would result in “nonsense” for most of the text for most users.  Many proverbs would be needed to select those with universal messages to be parsed into their phonemes for computer processing to find a combination concisely incorporating most of the phonemes. Such a song could be shortened by substituting some foreign phonemes and still be quasi-comprehensible to speakers of the language of that proverb.  Any leftover phonemes could be a chorus of total nonsense for the verses of proverbs distorted by exotic phonemes.  Imposing nonsense on meaning should be at least as easy as the opposite.     

Of course these details are merely illustrative of how our posse might organize its task—originality would be sought in all aspects of the effort.  And our coordinator might deem it desirable to get some grants for housekeeping expense such as postage, or even travel expense of key people to get together face to face in the final stages such as making sound tracks.  The song would be played on radio  and  television,  made  available  in  libraries,  and utilized  by  a  generation  of  the  world’s children.  Ultimately international travelers could join children in their songs at play enhancing the unity of our species—the international anthem idea.   It would be appropriate to publish this suggestion, edited of course, in many places in order to recruit competent volunteers for the posse. My hope is that this idea will take on a life of its own and I will become merely one of the volunteers with the coordinator fully in charge, recruiting co-leaders from linguistic, literary, musical fields, and perhaps even computer science to ensure that no vital phoneme is inadvertently omitted.

Finally, here a health column for the first of April. If we could contrive a place on earth far below sea level, people who need supplementary oxygen could live there and benefit as if the oxygen content of the air were 40% instead of 20%.  Mountaineers cannot live continuously above about 17,000 feet without extra oxygen because the reduced pressure of about half that at sea level is like 10% oxygen at sea level.  This means that if we could contrive a place far below sea level, people with severe heart or lung disease could live well on the ambient air there. Where could this be? Geologists tell us that millions of years ago, the straits of Gibraltar were closed, the sea dried up including the Black Sea leaving vast tracts of land far below sea level.  Deep canyons were cut where rivers entered the salt lakes in the deepest places. These canyons have long ago filled with debris eroded at the river’s sources. The straits of Gibraltar are only 700 feet deep and the world’s tallest dam is much higher that.  So why haven’t we done it?---sea level would rise about 20 feet from all the extra water that had not escaped from earth.  The foregoing is perhaps the first April Fool’s Day health column ever written.

So Charles Darwin taught me how to think beyond the confines of evolutionary biology---a near perfect choice of high school biology teacher in my case.

Levitan, Daniel J.&Rogers, Susan E (2005) Absolute pitch: perception,coding,and controversies  Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9 (1) 29

John Frantz, MD       
November 17, 2014
Revised April 1, 2015