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For whatever reason, I’ve been thinking lately about the Abraham and Isaac story in Genesis. I don’t know why, but that story bothers me like none other. Part of it, I’m sure, is being a father, having the experience of watching a child grow from a newborn baby into an aware, sentient, thinking and feeling human being. Watching my children discover their world, and seeing it new again, through their eyes, has been the great joy of my life.

I’ve read all the apologists’ explanations of the Abraham story. I still find it deeply creepy. But I was having trouble expressing what troubled me so much.

Then I thought of Huck Finn.

I recently finished (for probably the 7th or 8th time) possibly my favorite book ever, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And it struck me. The crucial scene in my favorite book is a near-exact recreation of the Abraham and Isaac tale. With one crucial difference. Huck makes the right decision.

Think about the similarities. God knows that Isaac won’t be harmed. It’s all just a test. But Abraham doesn’t know.

Jim won’t go back into slavery, no matter what, because Miss Watson freed him. But Huck doesn’t know.

Huck knows the “right” thing to do, what God and society tell him to do, is to turn Jim in.

Abraham knows the “right” thing to do, what God has told him to do, is to kill Isaac.

But Huck has changed during his trip down the Mississippi. He’s discovered something he never suspected. Jim is a man. Jim loves his family. Jim gets lonely. Jim even loves Huck, cares for him, looks out for him, like no one has ever done before – certainly not Huck’s own father. Does Huck love Jim? I don’t know, but certainly Huck has learned something that has shaken him. Jim is a man.

And what about Abraham? Hasn’t he watched Isaac grow, learn, discover the world? Hasn’t he had even a piece of the experience that I and billions of other parents have had? There’s little to go on in the text, but God does say “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love . . .” which I read as an admission (the only admission anywhere in the text) that this is going to be a hard thing for Abraham. Abraham loves Isaac. Huck may love Jim. But Abraham definitely loves Isaac.

Huck is faced with a choice. He has the letter, the letter he’s just written, which might seal Jim’s fate. He could send it, and save himself from damnation. Or he could decide to steal Jim back out of slavery. What comes next is the most beautiful statement of individual choice I know:

“It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”- and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.”

Abraham had a choice, too. Here is Isaac, the son he’s been told to sacrifice, the son he loves. It was a close place. But we never find out what, if anything Abraham was thinking. Instead, we learn only that Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

Now we know what happened in both cases. Jim was already free, though Huck didn’t find out until the world’s first frat boy, Tom Sawyer, let him in on the joke. Isaac was never in any danger, though Abraham didn’t find out until the knife was in his hand. And yet the choices make all the difference in the world to the readers.

Huck chose against what the world and God had told him was right, and instead chose to follow his own experience. Abraham chose against his own experience of raising a child, watching that child grow, and growing himself to love that child, and instead chose to follow what he’d been told. Huck knew his choice would be scorned, knew he’d be dispised and hated by everyone who encountered him. Everyone except Jim, of course.

Abraham was praised by God and the angel, and given great blessings and rewards. Everyone would praise his name – except, I have a sneaking suspicion, Isaac, who would forever know where he really stood with the old man.

Huck Finn, surely everyone would agree, is a hero for his act of courage. If you doubt me, consider this. What if Huck had mailed the letter? Miss Watson was dead, Jim was already free. EXACTLY the same result would have occurred. But if Huck had mailed the letter, would he have been a hero for following the dictates of God and society? Of course not. His act of heroism was in trusting his experience. Jim was a man.

Huck is a hero precisely because he turned his back on God and trusted himself. Huck took the hero’s path. Abraham simply obeyed. Huck is a hero. What, then, I ask you, is Abraham?

I’d like to tell you a story. It’s the story of you. It’s an amazing story, and it begins, believe it or not, with a man named Gregor Mendel who was interested in peas.

Just like you, peas have both a mother and a father. What any pea plant looks like, how it grows, and lots of other details about the pea plant are a mixture of traits from mom and traits from dad. In Mendel’s time, no one really knew how that mixture worked, but they thought it was probably pretty complicated.

Mendel wondered if he could make some sense of the complexity by breaking down the problem into little pieces. Mendel knew that pea plants had some traits that were either this or that: either green or yellow peas, either tall or short stalks, either smooth or wrinkly peas, and so on. He decided to breed pea plants together (make them mom and dads) and keep track of exactly what he’d done, then keep track of the results, and see what he could see.

Let’s use just one of Mendel’s traits, say, color of peas. Mendel bred lots and lots of green pea plants together and always got green offspring. He bred lots and lots of yellow pea plants together and always got yellow offspring. Then he bred a green pea plant together with a yellow pea plant. What do you suppose happened? Did you guess that half the offspring were green and half were yellow? Or that all were a sort of greenish yellow mix? That’s what most people would have guessed. But that’s not what Mendel found.

Mendel found that the pea plants were ALL YELLOW!

You might be thinking, big deal, who cares, what’s the difference? But that’s not what Mendel thought. Mendel thought, that’s strange. Where did the green go? If green can disappear so easily, then why are there green pea plants at all?

So Mendel tried another experiment. He bred these new pea plants, the second generation, together. Remember, all these peas were yellow. You might think Mendel had done this experiment before. After all, he’d bred yellow pea plants with yellow pea plants again and again, and the result was always yellow peas. So why try again?

But Mendel did try it, and the results changed the world. Most of the peas were yellow. But around one in every four was green! Where did the green come from? It must have hidden from the first generation. But where did it hide? How did it hide? How could two yellow pea plants come together to make green?

What Mendel’s discovery showed us was that traits could be carried from generation to generation. The things doing the carrying, things which were completely mysterious to us, we decided to call genes. And the green pea experiment showed us something extraordinary. Genes are lumpy. They don’t get all spread out from generation to generation. Instead they can hide, somehow remaining intact even though we can’t see them, and appear again in later generations.

But what are these strange things called genes that can make pea plants tall or short, green or yellow, smooth or wrinkled, and can make my eyes brown or blue, my earlobes attached or dangly, and many, many other things as well?

Now the story shifts to another scientist, someone named Thomas Hunt Morgan. What’s interesting is that Morgan didn’t believe in genes. He thought the story told by Mendel’s experiments was too simple to explain the complex way that living things develop from mom and dad. But he was about to change his mind.

Morgan was interested in fruit flies. Fruit flies have red eyes, and Morgan was used to seeing red eye after red eye when he studied flies. But one day, Morgan found a fly with white eyes. It happened to be a male, so he crossbred it with a female red eyed fly to see what would happen. Just as in Mendel’s first experiment, Morgan found that all the offspring had red eyes. So just like the green peas, the white eye color in flies must be hiding. Morgan wondered what would happen when he bred this first generation of red-eyed flies together.

At first the results don’t look that surprising. Just as in Mendel’s experiment, Morgan found that most flies in the next generation had red eyes. About one in four had white eyes. But then Morgan looked at the number of male and female flies, and saw something amazing.

About half the flies were male and half were female. That’s what he expected. But of the male flies, about half had white eyes and half had red eyes. Among the female flies, there were NO white eyes. Not one. All the females had red eyes. What could that mean?

Morgan knew that there had recently been some exciting discoveries related to the chromosomes of fruit flies.  Chromosomes are little strands found in the nucleus of every cell in the body – your body, fruit flies’ bodies, and the bodies of all other plants and animals. When cells divide, chromosomes divide, too, but nobody knew what the chromosomes did.

Fruit flies have either seven or eight chromosomes. But while female fruit flies have four pairs of chromosomes (for a total of eight), male fruit flies have only three pairs and a single, unpaired chromosome (for a total of seven). The working theory was that the extra chromosome made a fly female, while the missing chromosome made it male.

Now came Morgan’s amazing insight. If the trait (the gene) for eye color actually lived on that “sex” chromosome, then all his findings would make sense. Think of it this way. In the parents, the mother has two chromosomes that decide sex (let’s call them X chromosomes). The father has just one X chromosome. On the mother’s two X chromosomes lives the gene for red eyes. On the father’s one X chromosome lives the gene for white eyes.

Now think about the first generation. The female offspring get a red-eye gene from mom and a white-eye gene from dad. Since the white eye trait hides, all the female offspring have red eyes. The male offspring only get one X chromosome, and it comes from mom; dad doesn’t give them anything, which is what makes them male. And it gives them red eyes.

In the next generation, red-eye females and red-eye males breed. But the red-eye females are hiding that white-eye trait. All the females get an X from mom (with either the red-eye trait or the white-eye trait) and an X from dad (always with the red-eye trait), so they all have red eyes. But the males only get an X from mom. The result is that half the males have red eyes and half have white eyes.

It all works out, and as Morgan did more and more experiments with his flies he discovered that this simple explanation really did work. And so Morgan, who had been a doubter about the reality of genes, changed his mind. Genes are real, Morgan decided, and they live on chromosomes.

So what are these chromosomes? How are they put together, what are they made of, how do they divide, and most importantly, how do they carry the information that we call genes?

Chromosomes, it turns out, are made up of an amazing molecule called DNA. And DNA is the star of the next part of the story.

Lots of serious posts lately, so I’ll continue the trend with one of the most important topic of this or any time.

Soccer.

I’ve tried following the World Cup. I really have. I try every four years. I think it’s interesting to see the mix of countries from all over the world who all seem to have a shot at winning, and the format of eight mini-seasons to qualify for the Round of 16 is intriguing. But then you get to the matches themselves. And that’s where it falls apart.

OK, soccer (sorry, football) fans. You’re right. I don’t know beans about your game. I adore baseball, find American football tolerable but really only follow my beloved Bengals (ok, stop laughing), am fairly bored by basketball except maybe for the last few seconds of close games, and frankly can’t make head or tail out of hockey.

But soccer (no, I won’t call it football, so there) is just a bad game. I won’t get personal with attacks on the fans and so on, I’ll just tell you what I see as obvious flaws. Here goes:

1) The clock runs the wrong way. This is so ridiculously easy to fix. Sure, maybe to a “real fan” who knows how long each half is, they understand instantly what the 64th minute signifies. But why on Earth limit yourself like this? Who could possibly care how long you’ve played? How long you’ve played is irrelevant. Just tell us how long there is to go. That’s the important thing. But . . .

2) Even when the clock gets to the end, it’s not the end. This whole “extra time” idea is just silly. When you stop the clock, um, STOP THE CLOCK!  Let us and everyone else know how many seconds remain. It’s just silly stubbornness to do otherwise. Saying it adds drama is ridiculous. If that’s the case, why have a clock at all? Wouldn’t it be more dramatic for the officials to be the only ones who know how much time is left? (Unless even they forget because – the clock runs the wrong way!)

3) And then when you finally do get to the end, if the game is tied, you stop! What? Play another 15 minutes, another 30 minutes, another hour, whatever it takes. Don’t end in a tie. What’s the point of playing if you end up tied? Even bowling and tiddly-winks have tiebreakers. Ties are like not having played at all. It’s dumb. But it gets worse, because . . .

4) In tournament play, where you can’t have ties, instead of playing until somebody wins, you have all the players line up on some arbitrary line and shoot at the goal. As opposed to the regular game, where scoring is ridiculously hard, these shootouts are ridiculously easy, so that usually one unlucky miss decides the whole match. It’s a bad way to break a tie. Think of something better. (Like keep playing until somebody wins. There, done!)

5) If a match doesn’t end in a tie, quite often the deciding goal scored on some sort of penalty kick. And quite often, this penalty is for a foul that may or may not have occurred, but was accompanied by the most ridiculous show of fake agony the sports world has ever seen. The winners are all too often just the best at feigning devastating injury, then once they get the call popping up as if nothing happened. It’s silly, makes the sport look silly, makes the officials look silly, and has nothing to do with game strategy. It’s just poor sportsmanship.

6) The offsides rule is ridiculous. Let ’em play!

7) The substitution rules are ridiculous. The no re-entry is fine; that’s the way baseball works, too, and makes the manager really sweat out decision. But why allow only three subs? It’s artificial and arbitrary. Why tie the coach’s hands like that? Allow for more strategy, not less.

8) And finally, yes, I have to say it, a 0-0 soccer match is boring. A 1-0 match is only slightly less boring, especially since (as pointed out above) so many of those 1-0 scores are decided by a questionable goal. A 1-0 baseball game is a thing of beauty, because the pitchers for each club weave a tapestry of power, movement, deception, and/or physical artistry to prevent their opponents from scoring. Look at the box score of such a game the next day. By looking at the box score of a 1-0 baseball game, I can tell that a pitcher scattered hits and had pinpoint control, or walked a bunch of batters but was unhittable, or got the advantage of several double plays from his defense. The box score tells a story because a baseball game is full of individual, quantifiable battles that all have meaning. A soccer box from a 1-0 match, on the other hand, tells me who scored, when they scored, and how many yellow cards each team received. It doesn’t tell a story, because soccer doesn’t have those quantifiable moments of drama. Or if it does, no one has figured out yet how to capture them. Well, it’s only been 3000 years. Let’s give them a few more thousand to figure it out.

Response:

Since probably no soccer fans will read this, I’ll have to imagine their responses.

1) You just don’t understand the strategy behind soccer.

Great, explain it to me. Then let me explain to you the beauty of the hit-and-run and the double switch. Baseball strategy is accessible to everyone. Soccer strategy, while I’m sure it exists, is almost certainly interesting only to the actual players on the field. But maybe I’m wrong. Show me.

2) Have you ever tried it?

I’ve heard this argument before, and it is completely not the point. Notice I called soccer unwatchable, not unplayable. I love baseball, but was a horrid baseball player. I still love the game, even though I recognize that I have little to no skill at playing it. I’m sure I’d be a crappy soccer player, too. It’s still unwatchable.

3) Soccer is the world’s most popular sport; there must be something to it.

Most people believe in God, too.

OK, I’m done. For four years, at least.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
July 2010
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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