Some programmes are the finest we can watch, and one must be After Life: The Strange Science of Decay. For anyone interested in themes of simplicity into complexity and in themes of resurrecting, this is a must. It's up there with Armand Marie Leroi's What Darwin Didn't Know, the programme that looked at how two lakes independently produced the same number of interacting fish species and how by genetics that we now know that the eye evolved, stage by stage, just once.
The programme on decay was an experiment (with some themes off) of a best sealed room in Edinburgh Zoo where the temperature is high and animal and vegetable food is left. Some is in packs and some in the open. There is the contents of a typical family barbeque. A few flies are let in. There is also a big of composting going on. People can go around and look in, and Dr George McGavin makes his visits with other experts and asks the public to sniff things and even retrieve a £5 note from lots of maggots.
The main agents of decay are mould, bacteria and maggots during the room's 80 days. The three agents compete, and the flies produce maggots and then there's an explosion in fly numbers, must of which get drunk on wine and rotted vegetables.
Two aspects I found particularly interesting, and one was simplicity. Fungus broke down living matter, but then trees developed and for 50 million years stayed ahead of fungus and locked in carbon to make an oxygen rich earth that made for larger insects than we see now. Indeed the earth developed life. Eventually fungus evolved to get at the wood, and now turns dead trees white as it does its decaying job.
But a slime mould is a single cell body and can be huge. It is now shown to demonstrate pattern behaviour (like lots of birds forming efficient patterns in the sky: they just do). The mould spreads, finds food, cuts back leaving channels, and does so with back ups. The single cell must get its food, not cost too much and tackles damage. Create a map of 'centres of population' and a slime mould will produce the most efficient transport system. The efficiently planned one around Tokyo is superseded by the slime mould. In the same way, slime mould can do motorway planning in Britain, which can only be an improvement.
Like the maths of fractals, we have simplicities that appear to contain intelligence because simple rules create patterns. That's how the fractal works - an iterated virtual number equation from which beauty comes.
These are what I call signals of transcendence.
Then we have the business of decay. The atoms of nitrogen get moved from the decayed matter into growing matter. The forces of decay break things down, and clear away the mess, but also create the constituents that form new life.
The religions of the far east reflect this in their rebirth myths and that of circular time. For the more linear time approaches, the Iranian belief in resurrection imported into some Judaism and into Christianity is about death becoming life restored (and made full). So religions are reflections upon wider natural processes and also ethical behaviours for us more self-conscious ones. Yes, there are particular myths and old stories that relate to wider universal themes.
But an interesting point to add here (as regards the previous blog entry). If there was some tomb for a body that some claim was uniquely so far restored and transformed into a spiritual body, then when death occured not only would the brain have died and died pretty much immediately but the maggots would have got to work at an instance. More likely, as a historical point, the bodies of the executed were dumped by the Romans into lime pits so to precisely speed the rotting and gas bloating that would take place more openly and obviously - and the lime pit also goes for the bones.
The reason for making these connections is to try to plug religion back into the natural world and to give religion some life again itself. It's not that the stories of religion no longer work, but that in secularisation they are being shortcutted - we may as well go direct to the science and these narratives. Yet there is a lot still in Shiva as a God of destruction and recreation, for example, as there is in moving from death to life. My objection is simply in the particularity, where much of religion (and Christianity I know best) doesn't work on its own terms, by its own claims. I'm not a person to start praising Jesus or the work of the Holy Spirit when these are myths for what are ordinary processes that fascinate and are themselves incredible: particularly the maths and science of patterns and the way systems interact in the processes of change and renewal.
Note: all the images are from the BBC online broadcast and are here as illustrative.
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