Food for health

Episode 2 The story of the world- once upon a time

 

All good stories start with ‘once upon a time’ time in our story it is 4 billion years ago. The earth was dead, just rocks with no living thing. Then along came some bugs or micro-biology – we don’t know where they came from us we can’t read the embroidery on their uniforms so we guess from outer space.

How our food supply has changed

We guess micro-organisms were rather like the lichens and mosses that we have nowadays and which play a vital role in regenerating soil in lava flows.

They started to attack the rock and break them into soluble compounds. The process was pretty slow as there was no energy source so it took a billion years or so for anything much to happen.

But then life broke loose – there was enough broken down rock (pre-soil) for some plants to put down roots and survive.

The plants could photosynthesise and produce energy which they kindly fed to the micro-organisms in the pre-soil and in a blink of an eye (in anthropological time scale) we had real soil, plants growing like wild plants pumping energy into the system which could feed insects and animals that ate the plants and then more animals that ate the animals that ate the plants.

The green big bang!

It is estimated that trillions of species have existed but most have become extinct by the process of evolution.
We tend to think of bugs as bad, and indeed many bad bugs came along later.

They would give us anything from a snotty nose to a particularly nasty form of sadism in which they would make us seriously ill so all we could do was lie in bed. They would not kill us straight away but would breed up inside us, and then when they had a large enough army they would move onto the next victim not caring whether we lived or died.

These bad bugs are a major challenge for the most talented spin doctor.

But the early – soil making – bugs were definitely good and had they not come to our planet it would still be just a mass of rocks with nothing living. No humans, no late night films or music and dancing – just dead rocks.

The greatest deal of all time

This is when the greatest deal of all time was struck, even Donald Trump could not image such a powerful deal.

The deal was this – the plants would capture energy from the sun and using carbon from the air and water would create sugars which they would feed to the bugs and in return the bugs would break down all the rocks into minerals and nutrients for the plants to feed on.

And what a deal – life simply exploded on earth with a totally amazing collection of weird creatures which had never existed before and most would disappear never to be seen again.

The greatest invention of all time

At this time we had the greatest invention of all time – sex. Now this was much more important than a simple hanky-pancky between the sheets on Saturday night – it led to variety.

There were some creatures which didn’t bother with sex and simply reproduced but their kids were just mirror images of their parents so they never developed their species. Talk about being stuck in rut.

But the creatures that though that sex was a good thing (which was most of them) had kids that were different from them and this allowed evolution to cast its magic spell.
We tend to think of evolution as survival of the fittest but that is not really how it works. Just being able to get enough food or avoid being eaten by another creature is the easy bit. The difficult bit is being able to breed.

So the world was filled with the greatest collection of weird creatures that the world has ever seen or will ever see again.

The dinosaurs

Eventually the dinosaurs became the dominant species. The first dinosaurs looked at all the vegetation – which was everywhere – and just got stuck into eating. It takes a lot of eating to get all the energy they needed from the vegetation around at the time.

 

Some dinosaurs looked at all the eating that was needed and looked upon the amount of work involved with a look of complete disdain.

The sort of look of disdain my granddaughter gives me when I suggest she may like to clear the table and put the dishes in the dishwasher.

So they though this was for the birds (which is appropriate as that is what they eventually evolved into) and decided to sit around watching the other dinosaurs eat and when they were nice and full and fat they would simple eat them.

Evolution may have given us chocolate and honey but it has a nasty cruel side.

And they evolved over a few hundred million years to become very good at eating other creatures which meant that unless you were very big and strong the chances of survival were pretty small.

Evolution – never perfect

Now evolution never produces the perfect creature – just one that is better than the others so even the giant dinosaurs had a defect. They were cold blooded and needed the warmth of the sun to give them the energy to chase and eat other creatures.
Which meant eating was basically a daytime activity – no late night cafes for the dinosaurs.

But evolution is simply totally remarkable and if there is a hole in the ecology then given enough time something will evolve to fill that empty hole.
And this lead to the greatest computer the world has yet seen.

 

The world smartest computer

The most remarkable achievement of evolution is what happened next – even more remarkable than the evolution of eye sight which is pretty remarkable.

And it wasn’t some giant dinosaur weighing sixty tonnes – which the big guys weighed – but a tiny mouse like creature weighing some twenty grams (which I call Mickey).

Now if you are a sixty tonne dinosaur – even with limited intelligence – you would quickly work out that you would need to eat an awful lot of twenty grams mice like creatures to feel even the slightest bit full so he wasn’t particularity interested in wasting energy chasing such a tiny creature.

But this little creature developed one of the most remarkable achievements of evolution (even more remarkable than the development of eyes) – the development of intelligence.

There are two types of intelligence – the conscious intelligence which enable me to tell this yarn and the unconscious intelligence that will tell me that in a few moment I will need to go to the toilet or make myself a cup of tea.

 

Now Mickey – our little mouse like creature – used his intelligence to work out that if you put a 20 grams creature in a boxing ring with a sixty tonne dinosaur that the chance of the 20 gram mouse landing a knock out blow was more than remote.

 

So he used his new found intelligence to decide that in the day time he better hide in some hole in a tree. That solved one problem (avoiding being eaten) but still left one more.

 

Even a twenty gram mouse like creature needs to eat and if he couldn’t eat in the day time when the sun was powering the giant dinosaurs that he better go out and eat at night.

Given enough time (and we are talking millions of years here) evolution can lead to the creation of the most amazing biological innovations.

 

Now when I tell you what the greatest innovation of all time that evolution has produced you will probably roll your eyes with even more disdain than my granddaughter can manage when I ask her to put the dishes in the dish washer.

 

Because the greatest biological innovation of all time is warm blood. 

Give us a go

 Yes I know – at first reading that sound ridiculous and you may be wondering what white powder I am taking – but give us a moment and let me explain why this is such a technical breakthrough.

 

Think about our sixty tonne dinosaurs (or a modern snake or lizard if you prefer). They go out and catch a meal then just lie about until it is used up then they wait for the sun to come out and catch another meal – there is simply no control needed – just fill her up when empty. 

But to feed in the cold of the night our little mouse like creature had to make a major evolutionary breakthrough – he needed to keep warm at night.

Now to do hat he had to undertake a major study. First he had to learn about exothermic chemical reactions and how if you burn carbon and hydrogen you create heat. No big deal – any school kids knows about exothermic reactions. But school kids just love the big bang when something explodes but our little mouse like creature had to find a way of burning the carbon and hydrogen slowly so it gave a steady release of energy.

So our little mouse like creature went to the local school library and spend the first moonlit night reading about how sugar (glucose) can burn slowly giving a steady stream of energy – but there was a snag (as there always is).

He didn’t have a way of storing large amounts of sugar but on the second moonlit night he read about how sugar could be converted into fat which could be readily stored in large quantities – as long as you could put up with having a big bum.

The fat could then be quickly converted back to sugar and burnt when needed.

Problem solved – well not quite – now we come to the real smart bits.

So on third moonlit night he got out all the University engineering department books and learned about proportional, integral and derivative (PID) control which allow engineers to control everything from tiny engines to giant power stations together with the basic laws of thermodynamics.

Problem solved – well not quite – he needed a way of measuring his temperature.

Problem solved – well not quite – now we come to the real smart bits.

So on third moonlit night he got out all the University engineering department books and learned about proportional, integral and derivative (PID) control which allow engineers to control everything from tiny engines to giant power stations together with the basic laws of thermodynamics.

Problem solved – well not quite – he needed a way of measuring his temperature.

So on the fourth night he went to University medical department and read all about hormones like leptin and ghrelin and so many more that could help control his body.
Problem solved – well not quite – all these chemical hormones were really just messenger boys and really didn’t control anything directly.

So on the fifth night he went to the computer science department and learned all about how computers could appear to be intelligent by using coding like – if this then that else something else.
Problem solved – well not quite – with all this technology he still couldn’t work out how to solve the apparently simple problem of how to keep himself warm at night.

So on the sixth night he went to the University anthropology department and read all about evolution – how by a simple process of having a system of natural variability (which comes from the invention of sex) and the rather cruel process of failures not being able to breed that given enough time the most extraordinary creatures could be developed.

So on the seventh night he decided not to go to the University library and instead have a wild night of passionate sex with Mary – the lady mouse like creature in the next tree.

And it worked – it may have taken a few million years but at the end of the process there was a warm blooded creature which could hide in the day time and go out into the cold night and get enough food to eat to keep himself fed and warm.

A load of rubbish – yes of no?

Is all this a load of rubbish? Well obviously you have spotted the flaw – a mouse does not have a pocket big enough to store a library card. But there is a real – non fake news – moral to this story.

We may think that with all our modern technology we are pretty smart and understand everything we need to know about the world. But it just isn’t true.

Evolution has been working away for some four billion years and has produced the most complex and sophisticated creatures and plants which is way beyond the technology we have at our command. We can’t even make a dandelion plant from scratch while nature can not only make them but ensure they are totally indestructible.

Of course we must make maximum use of the scientific process but we must also recognise its limitations and be prepared to learn from the evolutionary process (nature) as well.

At this point in the storey I should be able to say – so they all lived happily ever after –

The End.

But no – in the next episode I have to tell you about the alcoholic captain of a billion tonne meteorite.