Harold Strachan's Last Word

Darwin. Thereby hangs a tail

Hell I’d hate to have my body guarded by this fellow. He’s spent long hours in a gym somewhere, you can see his musculature flexing inside his suit, though if you so much as smile at him he goes all bangbroek and blushes all over his head and looks about for somewhere to hide if necessary. But the two ladies with him need his musculature all right, they are very vulnerable in their category of work. For sure. Their job is to go stranger-to-stranger in the street and politely ask if they could spare a few minutes. Folks think they are doing some sort of government survey, but they are not, they are fundamentalist godpersons trying to persuade one to take some of their literature, see, and one feels obliged to take a couple of pamphlets because after all there are not a lot of things one gets for free in this bitter life and one should be gracious. But certain gents reckon they can perhaps get further somethings for free. I mean that’s what such godladies fear in exchange for their generosity, and that’s where the gym man comes into the picture. See?

Now this particular group have got everything buttoned up, they buzz you on your street intercom and only after you’ve let them in and the security gate has automatically clicked shut do they take the free literature from their briefcases. The leading lady is 50ish. She steps straight up and says to me Do You Believe In Darwin? Well... er... that is... um, yes, say I. Well if we are descended from monkeys where are all those people with half a tail? says she.

She’s probably a well-meaning old duck, think I to myself, and I’m polite because I’m too lazy to be rude, so I don’t tell her to voetsek, I smile engagingly. Mama, say I, Darwin never said that, he said the great apes and we have a common ancestor seven million-or-so years ago, and if you want to include monkeys in the ancestry you should go back 10, 11 million years. Well there you are, says she, in 10 million years how many species would there be living around us with half a tail, a third of a tail, a quarter tail and, um, what comes next? She counts her fingers and toes, like a Japanese bank teller with his abacus. An eighth of a tail and a sixteenth, say I. Yes, she says, if you can show me a person with an eighth of a tail I’ll believe in Darwin. Madam, say I, pointing at the Musgrave Centre, you can go this very minute to Adams Booksellers over there, it’s not 300 metres away, and there buy his book about evolution, in 150 years it’s never gone out of print. People buy it because it’s exciting to read, maybe you’ll get a bit excited too.  Why should I look for excitement in this Life when I’ve got Truth? says she.

Lady #2 looks about 17 years old and wouldn’t mind a bit of excitement now and then if Jesus didn’t get in the way, I mean, you know, zizipompom. She coughs politely H’m H’m. Excuse me, says she, what is Darwin’s book about? Well he says it’s about Evolution by Natural Selection, say I, but to me that’s tautological, which means something is so because it is so: the survivors survive because they are survivors. He should have called it Survival by Random Advantage i.e. Luck. Nature is not a force, moral or physical, a judgmental old auntie who stands back and judges various competitors in the game of survival and decides which candidate best suits the situation, like the matter has been put up for tender. I see, says #2.

You mean, says Leading Lady, it is only luck that I am not a monkey? Indeed, say I, and there are many of yous who are monkeys. So where are all the people with one eighth of a tail? says she. Oh shit! think I to myself, play another string on your harp. Missus, say I, it doesn’t work that way, it goes slowly, individual by individual, having advantageous genetic mutations, generation by generation, until there are enough of them to redefine the species as new.

See that tomcat over the road, you and he have a common ancestor, also that lizard on the wall, also you are related to a shark with eyes left and right and a mouth with teeth opening horizontally and symmetrical limbs and a 100% tail, and with jellyfish and this palm tree growing here, right back to a single bacterium. Embarrassing silence. I click the remote, the street gate opens, all is polite, all is sour. Don’t forget Adams’ bookshop say I to #2. I bow to the bodyguard, he blushes. 

Good morning, says Leading Lady, and nods. M’am, say I, you have 24 vertebrae down your spine, then comes a flat part called the sacrum that the hipbones are joined on to and at the bottom of the sacrum are three or four small vertebrae fused together and called the coccyx, pointing slightly inwards. The coccyx has no function, it is the 10 million-year-old remnant of a tail. Look it up on the internet, look it up in a dictionary, find it in an old X-ray photo or perhaps, best of all, ask your doctor. If you are looking for a person with an eighth of a tail, look no further, for you have found her, and she is you.

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