How Clams Destroyed My Faith in Science
July 4, 2011 2 Comments
This is the story of how clams led to my disillusionment with maps. In another post, I might explain how microscopic photography is dragging me back into the body of believers, but for years I’ve looked askance at scientific diagrams because of how badly they led me astray in my youth.
When I was little, my dad used to get me those scientific coloring books. The Zoology coloring-book is the one I remember best:
Whenever we were out of the country for extended periods of time, I had to be home-schooled so I wouldn’t fall too far behind while I was away. This was one of the things we did. My feelings about it were complex. I loved that it made coloring do double-work as learning. I felt like it was sort of cheating, both on the coloring side of things (no imagination) and on the science side of things. And I hated having to color in the letters because I always ended up accidentally going outside the lines. The pictures always looked nicer before I colored them than after. (Look at that frog to the left–isn’t it the ugliest thing now that it’s all filled in?) There was no esthetic pride in the work.
I liked it, though, in a virtuous way, and I hoped that somehow it was making me understand things a little better. Even then, though, the ones I got obsessed with were the ones that didn’t look like sad blotchy animals, but were marvelous creatures in their own right. Protista was where it was at. VOLVOX. Plasmodium. All the weird floating flagellated ciliated things that looked like the aliens in my then-favorite book: National Geographic’s Our Universe.
Did you ever see this book? It was amazing. I know now that it was filled with an artist’s renderings of various astronomical entities. The solar system. Planets (always illustrated with both their mythical figure and the creatures that were likely to live on them). It had entire proposed ecosystems of ostrich-type things that were chased by blimp-like objects. On Pluto, tiny ice-crystal type organisms moved extremely slowly and lived on uranium.
I don’t know how National Geographic got away with publishing it, because it WAS FULL OF LIES. But I believed it. I mean, I knew that an artist had done the drawings, but I had every hope that just like the artist had painted Venus, which really existed, it had also drawn the real exploding blimp creatures whose blood the predatory half-birds craved.
If that was bad, though, the Zoology coloring book was WORSE. Worse, because it exacerbated the crisis Our Universe had started. It occasioned a giant crisis of faith that’s still with me. The crisis is that I don’t believe in schematics. Or maps. Anything that’s a stylized version of the actual thing in nature but expects you to take it seriously as science? I distrust it. This is why I hated “frictionless inclined planes” in physics. THERE IS NO SUCH THING. WHY PRETEND. This is why I hated doing mechanisms in organic chemistry, where the mythical “transition state” has essentially no lifetime and can (in my humble opinion) be put up there with the aliens with the List of Things That Might Very Probably Exist But COME ON.
It’s why I hate circuit diagrams and maps. And when I took Functional Neuroanatomy, I basically memorized all the plates for the sake of the grade without even bothering to apply them to things I knew, because in my heart of hearts I know that these lines were meaningless and arbitrary. Entropy is always increasing, and drawings only make things worse.
Now I know where that skepticism comes from. Coloring books.
Here’s what happened:
My dad—who continually overestimated my abilities out of love—decided we should do a dissection as part of our home-school project in Chile. I was all for it, and really wanted to dissect a frog, because, well, the cover of the book was a frog and I wanted to WIN at the book. My dad thought that would be too hard, so he decided we should start with a clam and take it from there.
Great! I said, disappointed and trying not to show it. But, I mean, CLAMS? Who wants to know how a clam works? They can’t see. They don’t walk. They won’t even slice at your feet in interesting ways when you’re clambering around the rocks the way mussels do. Even snails seemed like they were up for an adventure. You don’t even see clams anywhere except in big listless heaps at the fish market.
Anyway, we went to the fish market with all its smells and big hanging bloody sharks and barnacles and fish and selected a clam. Medium-sized. As close as I could find to the drawing, with nary a barnacle growing on its perfect shell.
We took it home. I pretended to feel sorry for killing a living thing but it was really just out of a passive-aggressive desire to punish my dad a little for not letting me dissect the frog. It was a paperweight. It had no vim, no pluck. It wasn’t alive alive. My dad brought out the dissecting kit, and we looked at the diagram of the clam, which we had already spent so much time with I practically knew it by heart without knowing anything it said. Here’s the first set of instructions from the book. You will need to read this to understand what happens next:
There are all kinds of things we know as adults about how explanations and legends and instructions work. We can pretty easily intuit what’s important and what can be put aside. That is not the case when you are seven or eight or nine.
But I was going to give it my all so that I could dissect the frog. I’ll spare you my confusion at the lettering (why Color structures A through E-squared?) and the colors (none of my Pentels were “yellow-white,” OH, the trouble that made for me). Let’s just move on:
Each valve of the clam consists of three layers, an outer organic layer (periostraticum), a middle layer of calcium carbonate (prismatic layer), and an inner calcified organic layer (mother-of-pearl).
Aside from the apparently random italics, this made sense. It was a lasagna. I was excited about the mother-of-pearl bit because it would let me show off. I had a mother-of-pearl necklace. Next time I wore it, I could tell my friends what it was! (I had already told them—wrongly—that pearl comes from mother-of-pearl. I was the worst kind of kid, the know-it-all who didn’t.)
I read on:
The mother-of-pearl layer is shiny and characterized by adductor muscles.
WHAT? I thought of my necklace, which had nothing muscular about it. How on earth can the mother-of-pearl layer be “characterized by” muscles?
But then, at the same time:
I asked my dad this question. All I remember about his answers is that they took about ten minutes apiece and included an overview of sedimentary layers and the interplay between organic and inorganic matter throughout evolution. I nodded without listening because if I allowed sedimentary layers into my brain it might explode and I could die.
When he finished, proud at having elucidated these points for me, I stared again at the instructions. There was no help to be had, I decided. It was all up to me.
The multilayered valve is formed from secretions of the mantle (pallium).
I stared at this sentence like a codebreaker.
The mantle (pallium).
That, I decided, was sort of like Athena (Minerva). You’d think scientists could decide on one naming system, but oh well, we’re all just human, I guess. I found the mantle (pallium) on the diagram. This is more or less what it looked like (see the fifth term down):
What I took from this was that the mantle (pallium) was the rightmost tentacle of a shadowy octopus living inside the clam.
The multilayered valve is formed from secretions of the mantle (pallium).
So the shadow tentacle “secreted” a shell. I deliberated as to what “secretion” meant. I knew that secret and secrete were similar words. The question was did the mantle “secret” the shell—as in, make it secret? Or did it ooze it out, like toothpaste?
I decided you couldn’t ooze out something that’s hard, like a shell. So “secretion” must mean that it made it a secret. Which made sense: mantles cover things. It’s what they do. Very well. The mantle covered the shell like a blanket.
The layers of the shell are formed from the secret blanket-like operations of the shadowy ghost-tentacle.
I didn’t think too hard about how a ghost-tentacle could in any way resemble a blanket, but some things you just have to take on faith. Blankets are made of wool, which is sort of tentacle-like, so maybe some knitting was involved.
So far, so good. NEXT!
The two valves are connected dorsally by a hinge ligament.
Dorsally was probably a kind of glue or something. I pictured the hinge ligament as the hinge of a locket, but kind of oily, like ointment.
And there, tubercles of one valve fit into recesses of the other, tongue and groove fashion.
I glanced at my dad, who was smiling encouragingly.
Tongue and groove fashion, I read again. My lips went dry.
I had no idea what this meant. My tongue had never had anything to do with a groove, unless they meant teeth. Was it like how your tongue tried to get something out your tooth? Teeth had grooves, I supposed. But then, these “tubercle” things seemed to stick to each other, and my tongue didn’t stick to my tooth. Tongues were soft. Teeth were hard.
The questions started to multiply. Was a tubercle hard or soft?
So, also, how did the valves get tubercles? And both of them had them? And each valve had more than one? Tubercles everywhere?
I pictured a bunch of tubes protruding from the shell and gave up on my tongue and tooth analogy.
I took a deep breath and tried again.
Okay, I reasoned. How do things stick together?
The answer came to me in a flash: velcro!
I liked to hook velcro up in a criss-cross fashion, personally. But the tubercles didn’t seem exactly like velcro, because on velcro the two sides are different. One side is soft and one side is rough, and that’s why it sticks together.
Maybe, I thought, it’s more like shoelaces, which I hate because they’re so hard to tie. But shoelaces have two sides that are the same, kinda floppy, and they tie together. And shoes have tongues! Maybe the clam was put together like a shoe with two tongues that sort of doubled as shoelaces and fit into each other’s grooves. With a mantle on top keeping it all secret.
So far, so good.
We hadn’t even opened the clam up yet.
Now, these aren’t the diagrams I was looking at, but this is the general idea of how we were supposed to understand the clam’s interior:
So clear! So exquisitely scientific. I’d lovingly colored each structure. I’d colored the valves a velvety grey. I was ready.
I pried open my clam, eager to see the neatly striated gills, the muscles that looked like marigolds, the tiny anemone of a mouth. Finally, after all this preparation, I would be able to see the inside of the clam and label all its parts!
Here’s what I saw:
I challenge you to name a single structure in that mass of goo based on the diagram above. Find the foot. Or the gills. Or a siphon. Hell, find the mantle. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
My dad explained that it had to do with the fact that this was a fresh clam. If we’d had a preserved one, the structures would be clearer. He lifted various flaps of goo and pointed out different structures to me. I nodded, miserably, as if I followed, but they were all the same color. They were all the texture of rotting chicken. Here I’d been hoping to crack Nature’s secrets using my treasure map, and after all my code-breaking, all my efforts to understand the ghost-tentacles, there was nothing but undifferentiated living mush.
Ever since then, when I see a map, or a diagram, or a schematic, or a mechanism in organic chemistry, I grin bitterly. You can make me copy out all the pathways you want, scientists, but I will never believe that your lunatic doodles are anything like a guide to truth again.