Thank You, Stephen Jay Gould


Elizabeth Creith

Memphis at midnight, movies and Madonna: not three things that immediately spring to mind as a group. Still, for me they are now linked by Stephen Jay Gould.

My husband—aka Resident Geek—and I read aloud to each other from whatever book we have on the go. Recently RG was engrossed in Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House. As we were driving in to work the other day, he offered this gem.

“He says here that bacteria make up the greatest number of organisms on the planet, and probably the largest biomass, too. He says there are four little branches of one group of bacteria that turned into all the other life-forms on the planet.”

“Interesting,” I said because I was driving. But when we came to a red light, he showed me the picture—three big groups of bacteria and four fingers clawing their way out of the biomass: the plants, the fungi, the ciliates and the animals. We looked pretty insignificant compared to all those bacteria.

“So we’re just mutant bacteria, then,” I said.

“Looks like,” said RG. “Imagine how the people who scream about Darwin would feel about this.” Then the light changed and we continued in to work.

Work is rescuing people who have been stranded by flat tires or dead batteries or whatever. Most are pretty reasonable about inconvenience, but there’s always someone who demands that we find him a 24-hour tire store that delivers at 8:57 on a Saturday night in Spongecake Falls Nebraska because he has to be in Memphis by midnight. In fact, that was the call I got that very day. (I’ve changed the name of the town in Nebraska to protect the innocent.)

What I wanted to say to him was, “Sir, you are a mutant bacterium, as am I. What possible cosmic difference can it make if you get to Memphis by midnight tonight, or by noon tomorrow?” But that kind of behaviour breeds resentment and complaints to management, so I forbore.

Later on in the week, as RG and I were cuddled up on the couch watching a movie, it suddenly occurred to me that I was actually emotionally involved with the fates of fictional mutant bacteria, portrayed for me by other mutant bacteria whose job it was, roughly, to make me, yet another mutant bacterium—cry or laugh. Kinda takes the bite out of the heroine’s tragic death.

I'm sure RG never expected that his casual reading-aloud of that one fact would take such firm hold on my mind, but it has. Perhaps it’ll fade in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, I have a new theme song, courtesy of Madonna.

“I’m living in a bacterial world, and I am a bacterial girl!”

Books mentioned in this column:
Full House by Stephen Jay Gould (Three Rivers Press, 1996)


Elizabeth Creith is a biblioholic and incurable librocubicularist. Not only does she buy, read, shelve and stack books, but she also writes them and on occasion makes them by hand. Elizabeth lives and writes in Wharncliffe, Northern Ontario, distracted occasionally by her husband, dog, and cat. The Scriptorium is where she blogs about writing and life. Contact Elizabeth.



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