Word Ladders II:

Variations on a Theme of Darwin and Wallace

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    First conceived by Lewis Carroll, the author of "Alice in Wonderland", a word ladder consists of the product of applying a simple rule to two words that each contain the same number of letters: change one word into the other by changing only one letter at a time to produce a legitimate word in the language in which you play the game. I have added a slight modification of the rules to make the game more challenging and rewarding.

    Given two words, create a word ladder in the standard way, then use each word only once in a sentence. Then assemble the sentences in the same order in which the words appear in the word ladder, devising the sentences in such a way that when assembled in accordance with that rule they tell a story.

    Given that I have made evolution the theme of this set of word ladders, it seems appropriate to note that evolution works something like a word ladder. It proceeds through a step-by-step change through a meaningful/viable sequence of four-letter entities (words/DNA).

I: Bring a fish out onto land;

    We have: fish, wish, wise, rise, risk, rink, rank, sank, sand, land.

    Late in the Devonian Period, in the coastal swamps and marshes around the fragments of the ancient super-continent of Rodinia, lobe-finned fish struggled to survive among the roots, branches, and other debris that filled the waterways. If those creatures had possessed consciousness, they might wish to live in an environment free of predators. But predators there were and to the extent that a fish can be wise, it would choose to swim where predators couldnít go. When pursued, a fish would rise toward the waterís surface and head for shallow water. The predator followed anyway, so the fish took a great risk and came out of the water altogether. On a mud flat as smooth as a lawn-bowling rink the fish slithered away from its pursuer, using its lobed fins to push itself forward. Over the millenia, hidden within the rank vegetation of the swamp, the fishís descendants evolved to take maximum advantage of that tactic. While other fish sank back into the depths, these fish stayed in the shallows. Then one day one of those creatures, perhaps chasing a tasty-looking bug, waddled itself onto a patch of dry sand. That still-a-fish-not-yet-an-amphibian, called tiktaalik, became the first vertebrate to come fully out onto land.

II: Turn fear into hope;

    We have: fear, feat, seat, seal, heal, hell, held, hold, hole, hope.

    Any animal who looked up in time knew intense fear as bright light flashed across the landscape, followed by thunder louder than any animal had heard before. Any animal that stood its ground when the blast wave swept over the land was either in shock or was enacting a tremendous feat of courage. A front-row seat for this show was not a good place to be. A giant rock, an asteroid, falling out of the sky was sufficient to seal the fate of the dinosaurs and many other creatures as well. Any sentient beings watching the Chicxulub event would have wondered whether anything could ever heal the wound inflicted upon this planet. Where life had thriven they would have seen a burning hell apparently devoid of life. But certain sheltered areas held the tattered remnants of ecosystems. Plants, especially those with windblown seeds, re-established their hold on the land. A small creature emerged timidly from a hole in the ground and others emerged from their subterranean burrows. Eating the hordes of insects feeding on the detritus from the disaster, the little insectivores embodied hope in a renewed world of living things in the Age of Mammals.

III: Keep dust out of a hominidís lungs by evolving a protruding nose;

    We have: dust, gust, gist, girt, dirt, dire, fire, tire, sire, sore, sole, hole, hose, nose.

    On the savannahs of East Africa our apish ancestors encountered dust in large quantities. Every gust of wind blew powdered earth and bacteria into the hominidsí faces. It made a mess, certainly, but the gist of the story is that the hominids got sick more often than they did in the forest. Thatís true because in the forest the hominids were girt round by natural filters that took the dust and germs out of the air. But on the open grassland of the savannah windblown dirt is everywhere at almost all times. For early hominids it promoted a dire fate, the increase of disease. To make matters worse, the smoke from the fire that each family kept burning added to the misery. In addition to getting sick, individuals with dust in their lungs would tire more easily. Less able to contribute to the well-being of the tribe, they would not sire or mother as many offspring as did others. Itís a sore point with some people, but this kind of Darwinnowing transformed a chimpanzee-like ape into the human race. This was not the sole evolutionary change, certainly, but it was one that helps us to understand some of the others. Our ancestors went from having a simple hole in the face to displaying something whose moist inner surfaces trapped dust and formed it into clots that could be removed and discarded. It didnít have to be as long as the hose that hangs off the elephantís face. No, the little snot factory that humans bear is just long enough, our fleshy protruding nose, that we take it as a sign of nobility.


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