Thursday, June 26, 2008

Key to Modernity: Oxygen, Bananas, or Cod?

The New York times had a little op-ed on the increase in banana prices. I hadn't noticed, but banana prices are up big this year, and a fungus threatens the current most popular species, the Cavendish. All interesting, but then the bottom of the article notes the following byline:

Dan Koeppel is the author of “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.”

Changed the World? I like bananas, but suspect my life would be pretty unfazed by a banana holocaust. The author notes some translations of the Bible imply Eve bit a banana, not an apple, as if true that would be profound (titillating, to be sure--Eve bit a banana).

But then I noted my bookshelf.

Oxygen: The Molecule that made the World (Nick Lane)
Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (Mark Kurlanksy)

I think it's good for anyone who's an expert on C++, Six Sigma, or applying fertilizer, to think C++, Six Sigma, or fertilizer is pretty important, but 'one of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important', noted Bertrand Russel. In a sense, everything is essential, in another sense not. If it weren't bananas, it would be something else, and so too for oxygen and cod.

I owe my life to everything, good and bad, that ever happened in the history of the universe, because I am the unique combination of sperm and egg that resulted from that very specific moment my mother and father coupled (every ejaculate contains 100MM sperm). That night, their meeting, their life, and then their parents meeting, ad infinitum. My life is the result of a sequence of events so cumulatively improbable it makes one's head spin. But there's the anthropic principle, which states that our observations must be considered conditional on our ability to make them. And just like my life is improbable, so is current modernity. Without oxygen, cod, or bananas, life would be different, but then there would be something else, that, to that being, would be the equivalent of oxygen, cod, or bananas (clearly, w/o oxygen, my replacement would be much different physiologically, but in some aspect, it wouldn't be me, so, same thing).

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I would argue that bananas are indeed the most important fruit, at least from the perspective of feeding the world. Even at 58 cents per pound they are still the cheapest fruit I can buy.

gary said...

While I agree about cod and bananas, I don't think we'd last too long w/out oxygen.

J. said...

You are one order of magnitude more improbable than you think. Using your expression, your father and mother coupled more than once during her fertile period, and in those years, a young healthy male used to produce more than 100 million active sperm per cu.ml. To end this fastidious hair splitting, the alternative to not being born is, statistically, being born. I guess readers have all been born, so they dont think you are special.

Kirill said...

Bananas at the local Walmart are 48 cents a pound - far cheaper than just about any other fruit. Isn't it pretty important to have an incredibly cheap source of fruit, especially now when consumers are switching to inferior goods?