Does Nature Have a Moral Compass?

Mad Cow III

Certainly we have all experienced it: that small price often paid for a nice outdoor day. Say you’re walking in a field or a forest, the sun is shining and your mood is blissful until you go to pee in a bush or try to pick a berry and suddenly a funny feeling spreads your skin. Small, angry bubbles appear on your finger or thigh informing you, in case you haven’t noticed, that you’ve been given an unwelcome kiss from a nettle.

Next time something like this happens try and take a moment to look around the surrounding area of the mischievous plant. A quick fix is close by – it is likely that right beside it grows a plant of the genus mercury or a common chickweed – both of which are antibodies to the nettle’s sting. All you need is to take one of them, rub them gently on the affected skin and the pain will quickly go away, the bubbles slowly fading.
 This is how nature works: intelligently building a complex system meant to create a complete self sustaining circle ever more sophisticated than what we give it credit for in our daily lives.

Another astonishing example is that of the cassava root. This very toxic plant can only be eaten if it is correctly managed and prepared, because if it isn’t it can in fact be a death sentence. When it is peeled and cooked properly, it still remains a little bitter, and even has tiny trace amounts of cyanide in it. Modern research has discovered that this remaining bit of cyanide serves as a kind of repellent to the malaria mosquito. This discovery was of course only made centuries after the cassava plant spread far and wide and became a popular foodstuff in many countries. Funnily enough though, cassava only grows in those areas that have a malaria threat – namely parts of south America, Asia and Africa.

There are endless examples that can support the idea that nature has a way of its own – a logical one.

Mad Cow II

I allowed myself to float in the river of these ideas, which led me to the disease called Kuru. Kuru is propagated by a prion, which is a kind of protein carrying the contaminating agent. There have been very few cases of Kuru in the world and that’s probably because it is transmitted from human to human, by the practice of cannibalism. The fatal neurodegenerative disease has simultaneous psychological reaction displayed by random laughter or crying and extreme moodiness. Add to these symptoms shaking, trembling, slurred speech and other neurological failures and it is easy to understand why somebody with Kuru is said to look out of their mind. 

Perhaps Kuru is new to us but we are well acquainted with a different version of this disease. BSE gained huge stardom during an epidemic in the 1990s when it affected tens of thousands of cows and ended up killing their human eaters. Caused by the same prion type protein, we better know BSE in its common name of ‘mad cow disease’. A term coined because of the somewhat ‘mad’ behaviour taken up by the contaminated cattle. Just as in humans with kuru (though maybe without the laughing and crying) they demonstrated a reckless, uncontrollable behaviour followed by a physical break down. In this case the prion was transmitted when someone decided to feed their cows, a vegetarian animal, a mixture of grinded meat and bone of other cattle. Funnily enough in both cases, when an animal eats one of its own they go mad and ultimately are prone to death. There isn’t anything really mystical to these facts, they are grounded in basic science after all, but one can certainly take a moment to consider the irony involved.

Mad Cow I

Text and photos by Natalie Shafrir

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