Biology and life

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It was a bizarre fluke of timing. As American bombs began to fall on Baghdad two weeks ago I was on a plane, taking me for the first time ever to the Caribbean. I had a chance to spend some time with a group of scientists at a marine station on a tiny island 15 miles off the shore of Belize. Even as I arrived, I knew the United States was ready to launch its planes and missiles and to send tens of thousands of American men and women into battle.

President Bush had issued an ultimatum and war was on the way. Out on the island, that was all we knew. Belize radio gave us news, but the lead story one night told of a man “in an unconscious state” after a traffic accident and on another night a story of the roof that blew off a woman’s house. We learned there was bombing, but that was all. Our sense of the war was of distant thunder that we felt but didn’t really hear. If we looked eastward, all we saw was the surf on the reef and the blue line of the horizon.

So there I was as a season of death began in the desert, living with a small group of men and women whose profession was the study of life. Life is even more plentiful and various under the sea than it is on land, and I was able to observe its numerous curious forms. One night we watched an astonishing display of fire worms, small creatures that light up like undersea fireflies. Under the water we saw coral and sponges and sea urchins and sea cucumbers and sea squirts and starfish and weird jellyfish that rest upside-down on the bottom, like exotic, fringed plants, and barracudas that patrolled our incursions with cold watchful eyes.

An Austrian scientist on the island was gathering microscopic worms from the sand. An American scientist was studying, among other things, the way that sponges from one habitat reacted when moved to another. A layman like me is mainly overwhelmed by the exoticism and variety of the things he sees in the ocean. Worms in the sand? Who would have thought? But the scientific enterprise goes beyond the layman’s wonder.

On the island, the scientists were studying how one species actually assists in the survival of another, which is wondrous in itself. Competition is a fact of evolution that gives rise to the survival of the fittest. Mutualism is another fact of evolution, suggesting the advantages of cooperation. Life is persistent, that’s one thing you learn under the sea. It fills every gap, it creates new forms and strategies, it carries on.

Nature can be harsh; hurricanes do huge damage to coral reefs. But before global warming weakened them, the reefs were usually able to regenerate. War is a hurricane unleashed by mankind on itself. We feel it personally, and it takes on the dimensions of tragedy because it’s something we choose. It was in deference to life that the scientists in Belize were doing their work. At the same time, bombs were falling in a distant place. Life struggles to survive. At times it is an awful struggle.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

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