Episode 49: The Science of “Our Flag Means Death”

Still from Our Flag Means Death showing a close-up on a pink and yellow moth resting on a finger.

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Charles 0:23
Hello and welcome to Assigned Science at Bachelor’s. I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.

Tessa 0:28
And I’m Tessa and I’m an astrobiologist.

Charles 0:30
And this week, it’s just the two of us. Um… Tessa, how’s the, how’s the mood? How are you doing?

Tessa 0:40
I’m hanging in there. I’ve been better. But I’ve also been worse.

Charles 0:44
Well, that’s something to hold on to. For anybody who somehow is online enough to listen to podcasts, but not online enough to get any other updates. There was a leak… Monday? that was published on Monday that there will almost certainly be a decision from the Supreme Court of the United States. striking down Roe v. Wade, and right wingers are still fascist-ically devoted to the elimination of queer and trans people. So it’s kind of it’s rough all around.

Tessa 1:25
Yeah, yeah. It’s not great times.

Charles 1:28
It’s not great.

Tessa 1:30
Honestly, the major reason I’m not like more freaked out is because I kind of had a slow motion anxiety attack about this exact scenario back in December and kind of got it all out of my system.

Charles 1:39
Well, that’s good. I mean, it’s bad, but it’s, you know, yeah, it’s…

Tessa 1:44

Charles 1:44
But the good news is that, since our last episode, I did get a new cat. So to bring the mood up a little bit, I thought that we would do quite a lighthearted episode, talking about the science kind of, of the HBO series “Our Flag Means Death.” So you’ve now watched OFMD?

Tessa 2:10
Yeah, I have. I have indeed, I enjoyed it. It’s a very upbeat show. I like the fact that they did not queer bait in the slightest. Everything was very explicit, which is always lovely to see. And, you know, even though I know historically both Stede Bonnet and to an even greater extent, Blackbeard were like, you know, mass murderers…

Charles 2:30
Commiters of human atrocities.

Tessa 2:32
Human atrocities, yeah. The way they’re portrayed here is rather charming. I’ve enjoyed it.

Charles 2:37
Yeah. I mean, no lesbians this season.

Tessa 2:41
You know, look, someone pointed out to me, or rather, I saw this on Twitter that, you know, they’re in the right time period for Mary Reed and any Bonnie to show up who were in real life were associated with Calico Jack. So just saying they’ve got natural leads for it. And I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

Charles 2:58
It’s only a matter of time… Definitely we’ll get some lesbians in season two. They wouldn’t leave us hanging like this.

Tessa 3:05
I don’t think they would No, I don’t think they would.

Charles 3:08
I… First off, just to be absolutely clear, the historical figure of Stede Bonnet, the real life man, who was known as the gentleman pirate, he was a landed aristocrat in early 1700s Barbados, and he was wealthy. And you can imagine the source of his wealth. And if you can’t imagine, no worries, I’ll tell you – it was slavery. I mean, I’ve seen… there’s been some amount of discourse about whether it’s like basically okay, that they took this guy who in real life was a person who believed that he owned people and sort of make him into just sort of a cheerful forty year old gay guy on a, on a path of romantic self discovery, and sexual self discovery. You know, Taika Waititi is pretty hot. But I will say, I don’t… they’re using historical facts are right up to the point where it’s funny, and absolutely not past there. So the history figures…

Tessa 4:14
Oh yeah, no, there’s nothing historical about this, aside from the fact that some of these people did exist.

Charles 4:20
Like, yeah, well in like, they got his wife’s name right. You know, he was an associate of the real historical Blackbeard. Yeah, his ship was called the revenge, you know, like, they’re borrowing biographical details, but only really as inspiration.

Tessa 4:36

Charles 4:37
I mean, I still, you know, it’s not a perfect look, but it’s, I do still enjoy the show. So, speaking of historical anachronisms, because the show canonically takes place in 1717, there’s no ambiguity about that through the series. They do reference a couple of different historical ideas. Is that are variably accurate and anachronistic. And I thought that it would be fun to go through a couple of them. But before doing that, I think just in case anybody who listens to this podcast hasn’t watched OFMD, which is kind of unimaginable to me because our audience, I’m pretty sure like 100% gay and or trans, gay as an umbrella term.

Tessa 5:29
Let’s be real about our demographic here.

Charles 5:31
Let’s let’s be real about our demographics. It’s the exact same people who are losing their minds over Our Flag Means Death and have been for the past two months, but maybe my dad’s listening to this episode. So for him, Our Flag Means Death is a 10 episode series following a heavily fictionalized version of the historical figure Stede Bonnet, who was a man who was a landed aristocrat in Barbados, born in the late 1600s, into the seven early 1700s, who abandoned his life to become a pirate, and he was known as the gentleman pirate. And he was actually historically for a brief period of time and associate of the real historical Blackbeard, in what is known as the Golden Age of Piracy. And so the story of OFMD begins a couple of weeks after he sets out onto the sea to be a pirate. He has a crew of incompetents, who all have hearts of gold, and a couple of episodes in they encounter a black beard, who is also going through a midlife crisis. And then the rest of the series plays out with them having a variety of mostly low stakes adventures, while they very awkwardly fall in love, as two 50 year old men discovering their sexuality for the first time. And it’s just there…

Tessa 6:57
IT was, it was heavily implied that Blackbeard was very well aware of the sexuality, it was Stede was the one who was surprised…

Charles 7:04
That’s actually an interesting interpretation, because…

Tessa 7:07
I’m pretty sure Calico Jack like mentions that they…

Charles 7:10
Oh, yes, yes. Yeah. I think I mean, discovering his sexuality more in the sense of a holistic, emotional, mental and physical experience. Yes. And it basically saying that neither of these two men have ever fallen in love. And, yes, together for the first time.

Tessa 7:32
I think that’s a fair interpretation.

Charles 7:34
Plus, there, there are a lot of queer characters, like a lot of literally… Lucius, Black Pete, Jim, Oluwande, Ed, Stede, and Izzy, which is the least explicit. But if you watch the show, and you’re gay, then it’s just so obvious that that Izzy is deeply repressed, and all he wants us to be dom’d by Blackbeard.

Tessa 8:07
You know what, I think that’s a valid, that’s a valid interpretation. I will say, I would not be surprised if Buttons is revealed to be asexual.

Charles 8:14
That’d be fun.

Tessa 8:15
In part because, like, you know, his real loves are his birds.

Charles 8:19
Well, this is the thing. It’s not so much that he’s asexual. It’s that the object of his sexual desire is the sea. And that’s difficult to make manifest.

Tessa 8:34
That’s, yes, you’re right. That’s very good way to put again…

Charles 8:37
I mean, listen, I don’t want to, I guess that would be I mean, would that be classified as a paraphilia?

Tessa 8:44
I’m not sure. I’m sure there’s been discourse or literature on it somewhere.

Charles 8:50
There’s a lot of weird sex stuff has happened on the ocean. [interstitial] So the first thing that I wanted to talk about is the appearance anachronistically of binomial nomenclature in OFMD. Tessa, what do you know about the system of taxonomy? That is basically what we use in biology.

Tessa 9:21
Now, I know it was first developed by Linnaeus, you know, in the 18th century, although at the time because he was trying to be super inclusive, I guess for religious reasons. He also included minerals along with vegetables and animals. And it has since grown into a much more complex structure, starting kingdom, going all the way down through phylum, class order, and down to genus and species.

Charles 9:47
Yep. That’s basically it. You did miss family because it’s kingdom, phylum….

Tessa 9:54
Oh, yeah.

Charles 9:54
class, family, genus, species. So the way that taxonomy is now done, the basic system that we use is inherited down through the centuries from Linnaeus’s work but not unmodified. It is, it’s called binomial nomenclature, because every species has a name that includes two parts: the genus, and then the species epithet. And what this does is two things. One is that it gives it its species name, which applies only to it. And then you get into sub species, and there are additional names, but yeah, don’t worry about it. And then the genus, what other organisms it’s closest to.

But also, the taxonomic hierarchy is basically like a set of nesting dolls, where each one is broader and more inclusive than the other. So each genus belongs to a family, which has other genera. Each family belongs to an order, which has other families, each order belongs to a class, which has other orders, each class to a phylum, each phylum to a kingdom. And so we can go up and down and look at groupings of these organisms together, and every single species belongs to each of these, these are the required ranks. So there is no species on Earth that doesn’t belong to kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, and genus. But because Linnaeus et al., did not anticipate how many species we would know about and formally describe over the years, there are many ranks between these ranks, and it gets very granular, and very specific, like what’s an epifamily? You probably don’t know. But I know. At that level of specificity, it’s mostly only interesting or relevant to people specifically working on taxonomy and systematics.

And so nowadays, the primary motivator behind organization of these different ranks, is as a formalization of our knowledge of evolutionary relationships. By which I mean, theoretically, all of the species in one genus are most closely related to each other. And then all of the genera and a family are most closely related to each other. So it’s like you’re going back up a phylogenetic tree, and assigning these names at the, you know, the branches and the nodes of the tree to just to say, this includes this whole group of organisms. This includes this whole group of organisms. And of course, our understanding of life on Earth. The consensus now is that there was a singular point of origin that then led to the diversification of endless lineages over the course of evolutionary time, thus leading to all of the extant species that are still around today. And so theoretically, the idea is that you could make a singular family tree of all life on Earth beginning at one point and radiating down into all the different lineages that there have been over time. And is there a lot to dig into philosophically and historically, in terms of how we do systematics, how we conduct phylogenetic inference, how we know the things that we know the incorporation of fossil evidence, the incorporation of DNA and morphological traits…

Tessa 13:39

Charles 13:41
But that’s not what this episode is about. This episode is a frothy confection. And also, I unfortunately, not a lot of people seem to care all that much about the philosophy of systematics.

Tessa 13:53
Well, you know, that’s unfortunate, because, like, you know, it has deeper implications for like, how do we categorize things? And you know, that sounds facile. But like, when you think about it, most of what humans do is categorize things, and…

Charles 14:10
We love to categorize.

Tessa 14:11
Yeah, and like that can have real historical consequences. Some good, some not so good.

Charles 14:17
Well, we’ll talk about it eventually in more detail. But today, I really wanted to narrowly focus in on Linnaean taxonomy, and specifically, exactly how anachronistic is OFMD? And the answer is fairly but it’s fun. So

Tessa 14:34
Shocking, I know.

Charles 14:37
So, basically, the… It’s tough for me not to get into an hour long discussion of this, but the the question underlying a lot of like, philosophy of taxonomy is, on what basis do we categorize and organize life on Earth? Right, and so modern day it is mostly evolutionary. And I say mostly in case any of my colleagues listen to this episode, and they have nits to pick with me – don’t, don’t pick them. Don’t pick those nits, because I know, but this is a broad audience podcast. So the thing is, Linnaeus was writing in the late 1700s, in the mid late 1700s. Right? He was an 18th century man. And in the 18th century, we did not know definitively that evolution a happened. And B, evolutionary change was the driving force behind the proliferation of various forms of life on Earth. So Linnaeus was a creationist, and not because he was anti science, but because science as we think of it now, was still being developed.

Tessa 16:03
Yeah, like creationism was one of the go to assumptions most scientists made at the time because they didn’t have any other better ideas.

Charles 16:10
His attitude was not to organize it… basically, the evolutionary use of the taxonomic hierarchy that we’ve inherited down over the centuries, is not its initial purpose. It is a retrofitting that we have done based on new understandings of how life on Earth is the way that it is. In large part, Linnaeus was dealing with a philosophical systems initially derived from Aristotle and then used and modified by previous botanists, as well as a very real practical problem of how do we talk about all the stuff that we know about.

So it’s often… we like to talk about Linnaeus as the beginning of modern biological taxonomy, which in some ways is correct, and in other ways, is incorrect. And not just in the way that all ideas come from somewhere else. But because Linnaeus was directly unambiguously drawing on the work of previous fatness, and people who had concern themselves with the problem of naming and classifying plant life. And those people were also referring back to the Aristotelian method of logical division.

Very briefly, I will mention and then move on, that a lot of sort of philosophy of biology is concerned with the question of natural kinds, quote, here, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on natural kinds, quote, to say that a kind is natural is to say that it corresponds to a grouping that reflects the structure of the natural world, rather than the interests and actions of human beings. Unquote. So for instance, there is a lot written on whether species are natural kinds, right, whether a species is a real objective thing, that we’re using scientific methodology, or just something we’ve made up because of, or it’s just something that we made. And then a lot of the conversation about whether species are can be referred to as natural kinds comes back to whether the definition of them is based on like, objective, scientific fact or convenience, referring back to this idea of natural kinds, the Aristotelian method of logical division was kind of finding a way to define and give meaning to, to identify natural kinds, and sort of identify, what are the ways that we can talk about their essential properties, right?

So the Aristotelian method had definition, genus, differentia, property and accident. And I’m not going to get into all of these very granularly, because I’m interested in it. But I also literally am doing my PhD in History and Philosophy of biology. So of course I am, but all to say that the idea of genus goes back at least as far as Aristotle, the way that we use genus now in talking about species and the organization of life on Earth is not precisely to the same way that Aristotle was. But there is a direct line from Aristotle to Linnaeus is botanist predecessors in the previous few centuries to learn is to us now, there have been many changes along the way, but it is not just a coincidence that Aristotle was using genius and we use genius It is a line, if you will, there is a direct line of descent with modifications.Air horn noises.

Anyway. So basically the genus, as put by Aristotle, is a part of the definition and essence of a subject, which gives sort of the area, the kind of organization that something is. So to quote from a book called The Poverty of the Linnaean Hierarchy, which is a great read. If you’re a real dork for biological taxonomy, quote, using the stock Aristotelian example, the genus animal applies to both the species, human and other types of animals, a differentiated distinguishes one species at a genus from others in that genus, in the case of human rationality distinguishes our species from all other species of animals, putting the genus and differentia of human together, we get that species definition, that of being a rational animal. So as we said, genus differentia, they’re being used, not precisely the way that we use genus and species epithet now, but in kind of a comparable way of binomial designation, where there are two things that together give sort of the direction meaning of the organism that they’re referring to, where the genus is the kind of thing that we are, which is an animal, and then the differentiate is the specific way that we are animals the specific thing that distinguishes us from the other members of that genus, right. It’s it’s not quite the same, but it is a logical predecessor. And then, before Linnaeus, there are four guys in particular, all of them baldness, come on.

But guess Barbeau, when Andrea says alpino, Joseph Putana, fall, and Augustus queerness, ravenous. And so these guys were working 1500s through 1600s. And they together contributed their own work on the classification of plants and trying in their classifications to tackle both the practical issue of how do we refer to stuff so that we all know we’re talking about the same thing. And the philosophical problem of how do we name and order the known natural world, because again, going back to it, all these people were creationists, and Linnaeus in particular, believed that there were a set number of species that were constant across time that were made by God and creation. And so it was, to him a very real possibility of, we just have to find everything, named them. And then we will have an unchanging classification that we can refer back to, because obviously, there are a certain number of plants, we can name those guys, and then we’ll know them. And so before him, there was sort of a progression towards the system of binomial nomenclature, that he fully formalized of taking this Aristotelian idea of genus and differentia, and putting it into sort of a binary system, but not necessarily demanding that either of those two parts have only one word.

So before Linnaeus, there were a lot of names of things that were theoretically binary, in that there was sort of one part and another part, but each of those parts could have multiple words, up to phrases and sentences. So you would have names that referred that we’re not just functioning as a name like Charles Wallace, but we’re like Charles Wallace, the guy who lives with three cats in Arizona. So the name itself was descriptive of traits that were characteristic of the organism that was being described, which is great fun, but also very unruly. And so Linnaeus when he came onto the scene, he believed that people should know like somebody who was working on plants should know all of the plants, and how are you going to get to a system where you simplify down all of the number of names that people need to know for things, thus, a standardized system of genera so that you won’t have to think of a new first part of the name for like 10,000 different species, but instead, several hundred genera, and then only one word for the species epithet, so that you only have to remember these two names for a bunch of different species and part of the name will be overlapping with many other of those species in the genus.

Linnaeus did not actually create the idea of binomial nomenclature, what Linnaeus actually contributed was a couple of things. One, a system which said it should be binomial. And that should have one word for genus, one word for species, so much simpler than what people were doing before. And he created a set of rules for both how to name things, and how to sort organisms into taxa so that it would be more standardized across the board instead of people just kind of going where the Spirit would take them. And the the publication that we generally refer back to as like the point of the origin of modern biological taxonomy that is still in use today, although heavily modified since then, is the 10th edition of his publication system and mature A, which was published in 1758. And for context, in terms of the timescale that we’re working with 1758 was 101 years before Darwin published on the origin of species.

And so speaking on OFMD. Specifically, there are two instances in the show where they use Latin binomial nomenclature. One of them in episode two is tomato salt. hattricks, where buttons is talking to Lucius on the beach, and he says, that’s Latin for blue fish. And he’s correct. And that name was given by Linnaeus in 1766, in a later edition of Systema Naturae. And then the second one appears in Episode Seven when they’re on St. Augustine and Ed, Stede Lucius are out treasure hunting and Stede finds what he calls Dryocampa rubicunda. [from OFMD Episode 7] “or, the candied melon silk moth… a very rare specimen. See, we’re already finding stuff.”

Which is correct, but he calls it the “candied melon silk moth,” and I don’t know where they got that. Dryocampa rubicunda refers to the rosy maple moth. It’s a real moth, it looks like that was the actual moth that they had. But additionally, the Dryocampa rubicunda, is native to this continent, it’s native to North America. And that one was defined by Fabricius in 1793. So both of the Latin names they use are actually from the same century as the rest of the show. But the very system that they were named under, was not formalized until the 1750s. So…

Tessa 27:50
Called out.

Charles 27:52
Called out. [interstitial] And then the second thing that I wanted to talk about was phrenology.

Clip from OFMD:
“Stede: So phrenology, which is the study of the human head, feeling here I can tell that Antoinette is of Dutch descent.

Antoinette: No, I’m Prussian.

Ed: Well, I killed a Prussian once.

(long pause) Gabriel: Excuse me?”

Charles: 28:24
Tessa, you know about phrenology.

Tessa 28:26
Yeah, it’s the rather dubious and discredited pseudoscience that believes you can infer someone’s personality traits, characteristics, inclinations by the literal physical shape of their head and scalp.

Charles 28:41
Bang on. I don’t want to talk particularly long about phrenology, because I feel like it is one of those periods from history of science that a lot of people do actually know a little bit about phonology is both pretty well known. And it’s not particularly more complicated than what it appears to be. Like, if you know that it was people feeling other people’s skulls and telling them like what personality traits they had. You’re, yeah, you’ve got it. I mean, the number one most obvious thing is that like binomial nomenclature, the inclusion of it is wildly anachronistic, because phonology was not developed until the very late 18th, early 19th century, and its heyday was really between the decades of the 1810s and the 1840s. So they were about 100 years too early for the presentation of chronology on the show.

But one thing that I did find pretty interesting was that, although the time period was wildly incorrect, For the inclusion of phrenology, the actual conceit of an aristocratic fancy man, who got invited to parties of other aristocratic fancy people, to be basically a party entertainer as a phrenology is, is not outside of the realm of possibility. And by not outside the realm of possibility. I mean, it is literally what the originator of what became known as phonology did. So phonology began with this guy called Franz Joseph Gall, beginning in the very late, like 1790s. And then in, you know, the 1800s 1810s, he was an extremely popular figure in like, fancy people life in Europe, where he did a tour of Europe, where he went to places and he did phonology on people. And they were like, Oh, we love you, come do phrenology on us.

And so, quoting one particular source that I read, quote, “If we suppose that goal sought only scientific status, or to spread his doctrine, historic could be considered of questionable success. If, however, we consider what it did for goals, social and intellectual status and authority, that it was a dazzling success, which is how he himself regarded it goal was, for a time one of the most famous men in Europe, he made a fortune, and by his own account, was immensely satisfied.” There was no historical figure Sir Godfrey Thornrose. And there certainly was not a famous phrenology in 1717. But the image of a fancy man, who is the toast of the town, the height of society, because he is a phrenology, And he can go to parties, and in elite circles and do phrenology on people is well established in history.

So that’s phrenology, and then the third thing that I wanted to talk about is scurvy. Now, you know what scurvy is.

Tessa 32:09
Right, it’s basically vitamin C deficiency.

Charles 32:12
It’s exactly vitamin C deficiency. I found a good historical overview of scurvy and the study thereof, and the European Journal of Internal Medicine, very short, very concise review article looking at first descriptions of scurvy, the major instances of it from the 15th, through like 19 centric, because the thing is, people still get scurvy, because it literally just is the disease that results from severe vitamin C deficiency.

So, scurvy, is just the collection of physical consequences of not having adequate vitamin C in your body. And so we see descriptions of scurvy, or what is most likely to the description of vitamin C deficiency throughout history. And in fact, according to this source, the first report of the disease was in 1550 BCE, and the papyrus of Evers and then it recurs across the centuries. And the first use of what is basically scurvy, to call it according to the source was in 1589, and by an English writer in the work principal navigations, where he uses scurvy. And in 1586, couple of years earlier, somebody else described similar incidents with the beneficial action of an herb called scurvy grass. So the origin of the actual word, Scurvy is probably in the mid late 1500s, coincident with the age of exploration, which is kind of a euphemistic term for the beginning of the end vis-a-vis Europeans decisively ruining the world.

Tessa 34:12
Yep, pretty much.

Charles 34:13
You know, and so scurvy was a big problem on boats, because boats often don’t have fruit on them. Or they didn’t have fruit on them. I tried to find if, in 1717, they would know to have a barrel of oranges on board, so that nobody got scurvy.

Clip from OFMD
“Roach: Captain.

Stede: What is it man?

Roach: We’re out of oranges.

Stede: This is the emergency? Eat an apple for God’s sake.

Roach: Now the thing is, we really need the oranges… to treat the scurvy.

Stede: Scurvy? Who has scurvy?

The Swede: Hello, my teeth keep falling out. Is that normal?”

Charles 36:00
As far as I can tell, it doesn’t seem like the connection between citrus. And scurvy was like, absolute at that point. But it seems like there was overall. And I see that maybe it would help. So it’s historically it’s not absolutely clear to me whether this detail, that they would have citrus on board, specifically to prevent a thing that they know as Scurvy is anachronistic. Who knows. So that’s kind of the basic… scurvy is vitamin C deficiency. Vitamin C is very high in citrus, and another fruits and vegetables that we can eat. And a great way to not get scurvy is to just never go long periods of time with sub-necessary amounts of vitamin C, a great medical tip from me to you: eat an orange every once in a while. Don’t get scurvy. So Vitamin C is an organic compound, also known as ascorbic acid.

Tessa 36:10
It’s very important for the formation and maintenance of collagen and other connective tissues. Which is why one of the symptoms of scurvy is your teeth falling out, because your gums are literally weakening. It also messes up your hair and fingernails, I believe. And also you get nosebleeds because the connective tissue, the mucosa tissue in your nose is weaker.

Charles 36:36
Yeah, so in this simplest terms, really, Vitamin C is very, very important for collagen. And collagen is a protein that is found in basically, most if not all of the connective tissue in the human body, among other kinds of bodies. And connective tissue is very important because it does exactly what it says on the tin, it connects stuff together. So if you don’t have good collagen, it’s going to be a real horror show in there. So you don’t want to develop scurvy. And as I think I mentioned, people are still developing scurvy now, because it is not like it is a virus that is historically or geographically located. It is just a deficiency of something vital to your body working which can and that vital aspect is something that we don’t synthesize and our own bodies, and therefore rely on our diets to supplement. So if you just don’t have vitamin C available in your diet, you will develop a vitamin C deficiency. And anybody can develop it anywhere, at any time.

But what’s interesting is that most vertebrates can synthesize vitamin C as can basically old plants. Hence why the dietary sources of vitamin C for us our plants, generally, humans cannot synthesize vitamin C because we cannot perform the final step of vitamin C biosynthesis, which is the conversion of L Gulino. G lactone into sorbic acid. Okay, vitamin C, which is catalyzed by the enzyme, L-gulonolactone oxidase, also known as Gulo. So the absence of Gulo means that we cannot complete the pathway towards vitamin C biosynthesis. And this is a characteristic that we share with guinea pigs, teleios fishes, some bats, certain birds, and air close primate relatives, quote, unquote, the higher primates, although if there are any primatologists primate system, it’s tiss out in the audience. I don’t know the terms we use for primates, frankly, no offense to you, I don’t really care about them. I respect you and I respect your work. But I also I can’t I just find primates, so off putting a lot of the time. It’s just a real uncanny valley type situation for me when I look at like a gorilla. I like can’t deal with it. Do you know what I mean?

Tessa 39:20
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Charles 39:22
But what is also interesting, the reason that we cannot synthesize vitamin C is that we are missing, we are missing the necessary enzyme to do that sometimes called Gulo. And what’s interesting is that our various, you know, vertebrate, cousins of ours, distant cousins, do have the ability to do that. So at some point, evolutionarily, we and our relatives in the quote, higher primates, including orangutans, chimpanzees, Gibbons and macaques lost the ability to synthesize that but then a question is, are we completely lacking the gene that would code for the required enzyme, or, as is actually the case, it turns out that we have that gene conserved, but as a quote, pseudo gene, where a number of the exons, so roughly speaking, the coding part of the DNA have been lost. So we have conserved part of that gene that would code for the enzyme that would allow the final step of vitamin C, but since this is to go through, that would then give us vitamin C as something that we produce ourselve versus something that we need to get from our diet. And this is interesting, evolutionarily speaking, because it’s like the loss of that trait you would think, would be deleterious? If not at least generally harmful? Right? Because as evidenced by how many people over the history of human life, have gotten scurvy, potentially fatally, that obviously not being able to synthesize vitamin C is not a great feature to have.

Tessa 41:14
Right, you would think so.

Charles 41:15
So this opens up kind of in, as far as I can tell, unanswered, or at least unresolved evolutionary question of why and how would we lose such an important function genetically, and there are a couple of different hypotheses. But there doesn’t seem to be adequate research to actually say, with any shadow of definitiveness, which one is or is not accurate. So a lot of primates love to snack down on fruits, were wild for the stuff, right. And so there’s the idea that the loss of the function of that gene to you know, code for the necessary enzyme would not have been noticed, until well past that point, evolutionarily. Because the, you know, whatever ancestor, it happened in was already getting a huge amount of vitamin C in its diet…

Tessa 42:19
There’s no genetic selection for being able to produce your own vitamin C,

Charles 42:23
Right, so there wouldn’t have been any fitness loss and not being able to produce the your own vitamin C, because there was already an abundant amount present in those organisms. And this is sort of borne out by how different organisms like other vertebrates, that are able to synthesize vitamin C in their own bodies, there will be regulation of Gullo, you know, the, the enzyme up or down depending on like time of year. So in response to the actual amount of vitamin C rich foods that are being consumed. So there is some responsiveness within those bodies to like, if there is a lot of dietary vitamin C, we don’t need to produce as much of this enzyme versus if there is much less vitamin C, like in the winter, then we will produce more of this enzyme, and thus synthesize more vitamin C in house versus getting takeout, right. So that’s one idea.

And then also, there is the idea that there are these byproducts of that enzyme Gulo, that are biologically harmful. So then the idea being that not only was it not deleterious because there was already vitamin C in their diet, but it conveyed some even minor fitness benefit. Because those byproducts, those potentially harmful byproducts, were no longer accumulating inside their bodies. However, I saw that several places kind of introduced and then stuffed back in the drawer as like this seems, you know, kind of wildly speculative at this point. So it’s a possibility, but it doesn’t seem like it is strongly supported by available evidence. But I just I thought that that was very interesting. Because I love evolution, which is why I went into systematics and not some other less good. No offense to you. But I mean, we know all bunch of stuff has evolved on Earth, and we don’t know of anything that’s evolved anywhere else yet.

Tessa 44:35
This is true. This is true.

Charles 44:36
It it true. [interstitial]

Tessa 44:41
So one other thing that seems somewhat anachronistic in OFMD, but actually as it turns out, isn’t was the fact that at 1.2 members of the crew, disguised as African nobility begin running what you and I in the modern era would recognize as As the Nigerian prince scam, claiming…

Charles 45:02
Well, Oluwande and Frenchie start a pyramid scheme, and then the workers on board are the originators of the Nigerian prince.

Tessa 45:12
This is true, but the form of the scheme that Frenchie and on the one that are doing is similar. The idea being that they’re deposed royalty that has vast fortune locked up somewhere in a pyramid as they put it, but they can’t get to it without some upfront investment. And that’s where you the investor come in. And actually that I don’t know if it goes all the way back to 1717. But it’s at least 200 years old. It was originally called the Spanish Prisoner scheme, because it was allegedly, you’d get a letter in the mail from someone who claimed to be Spanish royalty who had been deposed by you know, a family member or whatever, and had great wealth, but they needed funds to create an expedition to get to it. And then of course, if you contribute it, they take your money, and then you never hear from them ever again. But I just thought it was neat that that like that idea has been around as long as it has, again, I don’t know if it was an existence in the time period that OFMD is set. But you know, it didn’t come if it wasn’t it didn’t come too much later.

Charles 46:18
What a good show. It’s a very funny show.

Tessa 46:22
It is, we definitely recommend it here on ASAB.

Charles 46:24
It’s so fun. [interstitial] Actually, I do want to end with we have new episode ending questions. Speaking of ships, would you join a generation ship?

Tessa 46:39
You know, I’ve thought about this. I’m not sure. Like, because I’m not going to be getting to the destination. So there’s not real much point in having an astrobiologist on board. And, you know, I kind of like being able to walk out in the world. Yeah, no, I don’t think I would, if they put me in, like, suspended animation or something. And I could actually walk on the planet that we’re going to Yeah, I might. But, you know, if I am guaranteed never to see it I probably would not go.

Charles 47:10
I… For me, it depends. Because I am very afraid of death. But I’m also very afraid of space. And I’m very afraid of apocalyptic collapse on Earth. So in any instance where a generation ship would be necessary. I’m not having a good time. Yeah. I mean, that’s, I mean, nobody’s having a good time. That’s kind of the whole thing. But I would particularly it’s really between being a rock and a hard place. And another hard place, you know what I mean?

Tessa 47:51
There’s just really not a good answer for you.

Charles 47:53
Well, and particularly because for us, as trans individuals who have surgeries affecting our ability to contribute to generations, whether they would even want us on a ship.

Tessa 48:12
That’s the other thing that occurred to me.

Charles 48:14
Because I… because there’s also the question of a generation ship where everybody is put into, like, cryostasis, right? And then you wake up eventually, versus the idea of getting a bunch of people on and then having successive generations until you get to wherever you’re going. And both of those sound terrible to me, for different reasons. The first one, I am autistic, and I don’t deal with change very well. So having to go from a live on earth, to alive on another planet would be a very, like, I have trouble when I move. Right. So moving planets, I think would be very difficult. On the other hand, I don’t want to be away for 50 years on a spaceship, and then die on the spaceship also. So it’s tricky.

Tessa 49:09
Yeah. I mean, I would be thrilled to be on another planet, but like, I would not want to be stuck in my generation ship. Like that’s the opposite of what I was like.

Charles 49:19
Bad time. Have you read To Be Taught if Fortunate?

Tessa 49:24
Yeeeeeeeeeah, yes, I have.

Charles 49:26
I found it very moving, the idea of only a couple of people are doing space exploration and their missing link 20 years at a time. That’s very poignant. I think.

Tessa 49:39
Yeah, I liked how she handled that.

Charles 49:41
Now, would you do that?

Tessa 49:43
Potentially, if I had the right people to go along with me.

Charles 49:45
Yeah. That is not surprising to me. Would… Okay, here’s – would you commit a crime to get your wife on board? And then once she’s on board, like they can’t get her off?

Tessa 49:57
I’d have to talk it over with her but potentially, yes. That is… that is just the sort of thing that would happen in our relationship I feel?

Charles 50:04
That is the foundation of a healthy marriage. Forget what conservatives are telling you. That is, that’s how you know that you’ve married the right person, if they would become a felon to sneak you onto a spaceship.

Tessa 50:15
Oh, absolutely.

Charles 50:17
Yeah, I don’t think I would do that. But I also wouldn’t be on the ship to begin with, because the other option with a generation ship is like in On the Edge of Gone, they’re not going to a new place. The idea is, they’re going up into space to orbit around Earth until Earth is basically habitable again.

Tessa 50:37
Yeah, that’s a much more reasonable approach. I think

Charles 50:39
It’s more reasonable, I think but maybe also more depressing.

Tessa 50:42
Yeah. Because the Earth right there. But you know…

Charles 50:45
It’s right there, yeah. Like it’s right there. Because this is the thing as I’ve said many times, I happen to like Earth a great deal. I think it’s great. Pretty cool place. Not for long though, because of global warming. I’m just so I live a lot of my life in absolute, abject terror.

Tessa 51:05
I mean, unfortunate as it is, I think that’s true for a lot of us right now.

Charles 51:11
Well, at least misery you know, it loves company

Tessa 51:13
…company. Yeah.

Charles 51:14
It loves company.Well, with that said, if you want to find more of my generalized anxiety and mounting nihilism, I am on Twitter @cockroacharles, and Tessa?

Tessa 51:30
If you want to hear more about my research and science and also my suggestions that maybe we should just start setting stuff on fire, you can find me on Twitter @spacermase, or at my website tessafisher.com

Charles 51:43
The show is on Twitter @ASABpod or at our website where we post show notes and transcripts for every episode asabpodcast.com. And if you like the podcast, or you think other people you know might like it, please tell them about it. Word of mouth is the number one way that podcasts grow.

Tessa 52:00
And until next time, keep on science-ing.

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