Lint

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Someone in an e-mail list raises an interesting question: What do you call belly-button lint?

“We always called it flint,” someone else offers. “I was never sure why.”

Indeed. Where did that “f” come from?

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When I was a wee lad of ten or twelve, my dad managed to convince me that belly-button lint was produced by a special lint gland located right under the skin above the navel. “What’s it for?” I asked. “I don’t know. What do you have tonsils for? What’s the purpose of the tailbone?” he asked rhetorically.

This was my introduction to a radically new conception of the human body as a work-in-progress. Among the many profound and beautiful insights generated by the theory of evolution by natural selection is the importance of imperfection to life. Vestigial organs serve to remind us of our origins, while mutations make it possible for a population to adapt to sudden changes that might otherwise spell its doom. In this light, there’s really no such thing as a perfect fit of organism to matrix. The distinction itself is more than a little artificial, given co-evolution and ecological feedback loops. Exquisitely specialized organisms may almost satisfy human definitions of static perfection, but they are far less likely to persist over time – not that that’s necessarily the best measure of success.

As I would learn in a few years when we studied evolution in my ninth-grade biology class, this notion of perfection versus imperfection lies very close to the core of concerns religious people have with the theory. What may strike me as beautiful because it demonstrates the unimaginable complexity of the dance of life seems to frighten or alienate people with a more hierarchical worldview.

My biology teacher encouraged class discussions; the year I took it, we even held a formal debate to which the whole school was invited. I was on the Evolution team. It was a reasonably amicable affair; I genuinely liked several of the members of the Creationism team, which included the girl who would’ve been the valedictorian of our class had she not accepted early placement at Penn State beginning her senior year.

The guy who became valedictorian instead, my friend Jim, was the leader of our team. He wanted to begin our presentation with a short speech about non-literal hermeneutic approaches to the Bible, but the teacher nixed it. Instead, we were encouraged to zero in on all the inconsistencies between the two, rival accounts at the beginning of Genesis. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Our own fish grew legs and headed for high ground.

I’ve never enjoyed debating, and only agreed to participate to support Jim. I agreed with him that we should’ve taken a more conciliatory approach. But it was, without a doubt, a learning experience. I found out just how cheap a cheap shot can make you feel, for example, when during one exchange I demanded to know how light could exist before the creation of the sun. My opponent gestured toward the ceiling and said, “Electricity!” and the audience jeered. I felt sorry and exultant at the same time. Score!

Does losing make you wrong? In an evolutionary sense, what does it mean to lose? Are the distinctions between species real, or do they simply cater to the limitations of the human intellect? Wasn’t it possible that the Creationists had some valid insights, at least in their guiding intuition about the rightness of the universe, the emptiness of the notion of random chance, and the biases of a reductionist scientific view? But weren’t they just as guilty of a reductionism of their own?

In fact, doesn’t turning a conversation into a debate pretty much guarantee that only the most reductionist arguments will be heard? “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” said Gandhi. This seems true of competition in general: as soon as contestants forget that it’s only a game, imagination and critical thinking both go out the window.

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I don’t know how old I was when it finally occurred to me that my old man had been pulling my leg about the navel lint gland. It’s a good example of the educational importance of imagination-testing lies. Just as a certain number of mutations are needed to preserve a population’s genetic health, fictions are essential to the survival of a culture.

So in that spirit, I’d like to hear readers’ suggestions about what we should call belly button lint. And if it doesn’t come from a gland, where the heck does it come from? What are its properties? How many different kinds of belly button lint are out there, and what are their various habitat requirements? Can we construct a taxonomy, a family tree? Does lint ontogeny recapitulate lint phylogeny – or did all lint come into the world together, by divine fiat?

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It’s turned into a nicer day today than the weather folks had predicted. I guess I’ll be able to hang my laundry out in the ol’ solar clothes dryer. It may make a little more work, but that’s a small price to pay for fresher smelling clothes – and no brutal lint trap to clean and re-set. Save the lint!

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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