Faithful to Science

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The recurrent laryngeal nerve

Image by Miroslav Duchacek, Wikimedia Commons, File:Giraffe_standing.jpg.

The recurrent laryngeal nerve
You sleek, fit, timorous, towering beast,
Enormous swan, or mis-shaped horse,
I saw your stately, tall progress
And thought, a triffid, or Queen Bess.
Puzzled, or puzzling, as you munch
You seem absorbed, not on your lunch
But on some hint, some alien hunch
That your slim brain-power cannot crunch.

Up and down your splendid curve
The long recurrent laryngeal nerve
Winds its route the long way round,
And, tells, perhaps, of your reserve:
Slow to speak, long to think,
Fragile as you bow and drink,
Ungainly stooped upon the brink
Of flickering thoughts you cannot link.
Your family heirloom weaves its way,
The tale of making-do at play:
Jaipur to Agra by Mumbai?
No shame at all! Your pride and joy
To be a fellow-falterer,
Holder-back and halterer,
Trier-out and stutterer,
Letter-out and alterer.
If someone said, “let’s make a snip,
Re-route that branch-line, make it quick,”
I’m not sure that I’d vote for it.
At least, I’d first stand back and look;
Look, and watch, still and long.
My thoughts would take an arctic turn
And hear the humpback whales’ song
And run the race of marathon
And pause to stop and stay, and weep
At trees floating in the creek,
And factory fires and mission-creep,
And oil welling in the deep.
Andrew Steane, 2015

The recurrent laryngeal nerve is the nerve that runs down the neck in mammals, loops around the aorta near the heart, and then goes back up to the larynx. It is often used in discussions of Darwinian evolution as an illustration of the gradual adjustment or “make do and mend” approach that this process involves. The circuitous route is arguably an inefficient way for this nerve to be routed – especially for a giraffe. It makes what might be called a detour by several metres. The evidence suggests that it came about this way simply because it is a workable solution that can be arrived at by the accumulation of small changes.

So this illustrates the Darwinian paradigm.

What I am doing in the poem is saying there is nothing wrong with that.

This inefficiency, this managing to make do, to live with limited apparatus, is a wonderful, beautiful thing. It is what life is all about.

The circuitous route may be part of the reason why giraffes don’t vocalize much. They can make noises, but they are mostly silent creatures. People have used the giraffe as evidence that there is no design in nature. Other people have argued back that this feature is designed in for some good reason. Both are wrong. The design, or rather, to use a clearer word, intent, behind the world is that the world should be a world. A world in which fragile, awkward attempts at learning to live and to love can be made.

I say again: managing to make something wonderful out of whatever bits and pieces happen to be to hand is, truly, madly, deeply, what life is all about.

In the poem I muse on this a little, and also I ask for a more general slowing down, a taking another look and being less quick to judge. Because the mind-set that is quick to talk about efficiency is, too often, the mind-set that cannot see the true cost and value of things. It has led to people working in appalling conditions for the benefit of a few rich business-owners and share-holders. Too often, also, it has turned into the mind-set that leads to war and into environmental devastation.




  1. Graeme Ritchie

    April 7, 2015 at 11:33 pm

    Another great post. Structures like this and the huge nerve cells which must have existed in sauropods are sometimes cited as examples of unintelligent design. You present a completely different interpretation which seems much more consistent with our experience of life.

    It has been quite a while since you last posted. I hope you don’t stop. What you are posting is very valuable.

  2. Graeme Ritchie

    April 23, 2015 at 9:16 am

    Another great post. But I can’t help noticing that it has been some time since there has been a new post. I hope they keep coming. These thoughts are very valuable!

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