May 9, 2023 | David F. Coppedge

Ugly Life Is Beautiful in Its Own Way

Who’s calling ugly plants and animals repulsive?
To know them is to love them.

 

 

Many learn wrongly in childhood to hate and fear certain animals, especially ones with stingers and poison. Biologists overcome these phobias and examine organisms in their own contexts. What they find is often quite alluring. Here is a collection of news articles on the topic, ‘Why you should love ugly and nasty organisms.’

Why we should all learn to love stinging nettles (The Conversation, 9 Jan 2023). Aimee Brett has a hard case to win. Anyone who has felt the stinging itch of nettles probably wants nothing to do with them. She realizes that they don’t make many people’s list of favorite plants, but she digs in.

Let’s start with the basics. Nettles are amazing colonisers of bare and disturbed ground. Their long-lived seeds can lay dormant in the soil for five years or possibly more. And those rhizomatous (interconnected) roots that make them so hard to cull from your flowerbeds are something of a plant superpower that helps them quickly establish new populations.

Maybe no one is convinced yet. They sound like unwelcome weeds or difficult relatives at Christmas. Anything else?

Stinging nettles help wildlife survive, especially in urban and agricultural areas. In the UK, they are the caterpillar food plant for comma, painted lady, peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell butterflies. The spread of these nettles into our gardens and wasteland (from their natural woodland habitat) has allowed these butterflies to expand their range into our gardens and towns.

Then there are the medical benefits. Nettles can treat hypertension and diabetes, and have a long history in folk medicine. In addition, they are nutritious for chickens and farmed fish. For humans, they are good sources of Vitamin A and C, and can be used to make tea and soup. Believe it or not, the fibers from the plants can make clothing and car cushions (with the stinging hairs removed; perish the thought), and grow more easily in bad soil than cotton does. Convinced?

Are stingrays actually dangerous? 3 reasons you shouldn’t fear these sea pancakes (The Conversation, 10 Jan 2023). Yes, they are dangerous; ask my niece who was stung on the foot by one and felt the strong pain for hours. Didn’t popular TV naturalist Steve Irwin die from a stingray’s sting on a boat trip? Why on earth does author Jaelen Nicole Myers try to defend stingrays? Here are Jaelen’s 3 reasons to love stingrays:

  1. More people die falling out of bed than from stingray stings.
  2. Not all rays sting.
  3. A stingray’s body is harmless, but it is slimy.

Still not convinced to love stingrays? Myers adds that they are gentle and usually swim away before stinging as a last resort. It’s only the barb that causes pain. More aquariums are offering opportunities to pet rays and other fish. Myers thinks they are cute. Once you have a positive experience with them, you can enjoy them safely.

Clothes moths: Why I admire these persistent, destructive, difficult-to-eradicate and dull-looking pests (The Conversation, 8 May 2023). The sight of moths in your closet sends you reaching for those strong-smelling mothballs. How can Isabel Novick admire them? Well, she admires their gusto. They are  “Resourceful, vigorous, tanklike eating machines,” she says, able to digest almost anything, including keratin—the hard stuff our fingernails are made of, also found in hair and feathers. Most other animals cannot digest keratin.

Incredibly, webbing clothes moths can safely digest poisonous heavy metals like arsenic, mercury and lead. They can easily chew through soft plastics and metabolize synthetic fabrics. They have been known to feast on mummified human remains and have even been a recognizable pest long enough to be mentioned in the Bible.

Novick doesn’t attempt to persuade us to “love” these destructive, dull-looking eating machines that have spread around the world, but she has learned to “admire” them. I will still use mothballs.

Family tree of ‘boring’ butterflies shows they’re anything but (Florida Museum of Natural History, 12 April 2023). Moths and butterflies, called lepidopterans, are extremely diverse. We are naturally attracted to the beautiful species like this one (see also Illustra Media’s classic documentary, Metamorphosis, for some of the loveliest). The dull-looking clothes moths discussed above, and many other “boring” species, may not make magazine covers but are beautiful in their own way.

The family Euptychina, with 70 genera and 500 species, is mostly composed of brown, boring types. But they are masters of disguise, says André Freitas, a Brazilian biology professor. Euptychina includes some colorful species with eyespots that fool predators. Some of these show sexual dimorphism. Marianne Espeland of the Leibniz Institute is fascinated by this family of butterflies. She and colleagues have been working to classify them.

According to Espeland, the study is a rough but robust sketch of butterflies that are among the Amazon’s most abundant and overlooked inhabitants. “They’ve been largely ignored because people didn’t think they were interesting, historically, but I find them really beautiful. We now have a framework we can use to learn more about them.”

How hagfish slime gets its incredible clogging ability (New Scientist, 29 March 2023). To those unfamiliar with them, the well-named hagfish are ugly, nasty, and slimy.

Hagfish produce copious amounts of slime when attacked, which chokes predators’ gills in a gooey net. Scientists now know that mucus plays a critical role in hagfish slime’s remarkable clogging ability, and fibrous threads keep the slime from washing away.

Within half a second of being provoked, eel-like hagfishes release bundles of fibrous protein threads and mucus from glands along their bodies. The threads spread into an intricate tangle and, in combination with mucus, transform seawater into a thick goo.

What’s to love about that? For one thing, hagfish slime is fascinating to scientists. It is 1,000 times more potent than artificial thickeners, like xantham gum. And it works instantly in water. This has attracted the attention of materials scientists who are always looking for better thickeners.

“It has these spider-silk-like fibres running throughout it, which give it this strength and toughness that is utterly shocking and surprising,” says Douglas Fudge at Chapman University in California. “The slime is amazing.

The mucus matrix of the slime can clog even without the threads. How could learning about hagfish slime help us? Well, biomimetic “goo” resembling the slime might be used for “bandages, clothing and for military defence.” Thank a hagfish for those ideas.

‘Ragpickers’ of Mumbai use entrepreneurship to find meaning, study shows (University of Notre Dame, 12 April 2023). We end with a human story that might arouse a variety of emotions like shame, sympathy, disgust, or sorrow. It’s about poor children in India, cast off by their culture’s caste system as untouchables, and how they manage to survive—even thrive—in spite of their deprivations. A picture of these ‘ragpickers’ by the copy of the article on Phys.org shows some children who should be as miserable as maggots in manure as they roam through piles of garbage looking for bits of food or items they can sell. The photo has one remarkable aspect, though: the children are smiling! They grin for the camera like middle class kids at a park. How can that be? Aren’t they aware that other people consider their work physically, socially or morally degrading? Dean Shepherd and colleagues at Notre Dame interviewed 46 of these ‘ragpickers’ and 15 of their ‘customers’ to find out how they can smile.

“There are mountains of garbage outside the cities, and they pick through them to find materials that can be recycled for money,” says Shepherd, who specializes in entrepreneurship under adversity. “So it actually has quite an effective function, and it also allows these people to earn an income.”

One might think that they would jump at any chance to improve their lot in life. The Notre Dame researchers found, however, that many of them hold contradictory feelings that allow them “to not just survive, but also feel reasonably happy.”

“The first one is a sense that they are powerless to change the situation,” Shepherd said. “They may say, ‘It’s been this way forever. I can never get out. I don’t blame myself for a situation I don’t have the power to change.’ But they also recognize some positivity. They know that because of their hard work their families are able to survive.”

The study states, “The ragpickers were unable to reframe their exceptionally oppressive situation as only positive. Instead, they held negative and positive meanings simultaneously, combining them in a way that enabled them to carry on.”

One thing that gives the ragpickers and their parents a token of meaningful life and a sense of purpose was entrepreneurship. They have developed a sense of community, growing their ‘customer’ bases with word of mouth advertising and reputations for good service. It works well enough that parents often don’t wish to change their situations. “Interestingly,” Shepherd says, “the parents don’t want to leave the slums. In a sense, they are comfortable. They have their families, social connections and their businesses.” Some can see long term, envisioning a future where children can go to school, get real jobs and improve their lives. “They are doing it for the next generation, so their kids can go to school and be educated. It takes a couple of generations to break poverty.”

This last item is in no way a justification for the status quo in Mumbai, with its poverty, racism and injustice. It is not a story about another species of ugly animal that survives. It is a human story—a story about humanity’s unique built-in desire for purpose, meaning, freedom, and justice. We see this spirit all over the world, when soldiers on the Bataan death march held together under unbearable suffering to give each other hope. We see it in Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s personal-experience-based story One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, where political prisoners serving decades-long sentences, forced to work on meaningless hard labor in the cold, found meaning by taking pride in their senseless work. We see it in the story of North Korean defector Yeonmi Park who escaped starvation, torture, sex slavery, and long migrations to get to South Korea then the USA, where she attended Columbia University. There’s Richard Wurmbrand, Louis Zamperini—stories like this could be multiplied.

Human nature is capable of extreme evil as well as extraordinary perseverance. How would Darwinists explain this? There is no purpose in Darwinism. Things just are what they are. Some rise to the top and gain fitness or power, and the rest lose. Many of the early eugenicists staunchly opposed helping the weak because it was against the law of nature, the law of natural selection. Similarly, man-made religions like Hinduism and Buddhism teach accepting one’s lot in life, casting off one’s individuality and emptying the mind and even engaging in self-mutilation as worship to their idols. The Bible condemns such teachings.

Only Christianity offers hope for the longing in each soul for meaning, freedom, and justice. Why? Because in God’s sight, every person bears the image of God: a conscience, an awareness of a Creator, and a longing for eternal purpose. Because Christ bore our sins on the cross, we can be become “new creations” in Christ and citizens of heaven. In the first-generation churches, slaves could be pastors over their masters, and women and men, barbarians and nobles could worship Christ together, side by side. No Christ follower is ugly or to be despised. Jesus exalted the poor widow over the rich donors to the temple, and said the first shall be last, and the last, first. He sought out the disadvantaged, the outcast, the forlorn, and welcomed anyone—the rich Zacchaeus or the poor Mary Magdalene—who came to him with repentance and trust.

Regarding biology, Paul said in I Timothy 4:4-5 that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” He said this in the current fallen world, where sin and death are everyday realities, and where poisonous snakes, poisonous plants and natural disasters abound. So while hagfish and stingrays and black widow spiders may not have been part of the original “very good” creation, all species have their place in the current ecological network in God’s master plan. It works tolerably well, as secular scientists admit; else, why try to maintain biodiversity? Some day, the world will be set free from the bondage of sin and death when God creates the new heavens and new earth (Romans 8).

This anti-Darwinian view of the world gives impetus to study all that God has made, and never to despise a fellow man, woman, boy or girl. The only issue remaining is whether we as individuals are aligned with God’s plan. Follow the signposts to get on the pathway of life and true riches not measured in possessions.

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