The Chemistry of Humanity

Commentator Andrei Codrescu reads the back-and-forth e-mail between himself and a chemist about a creature that eats its own brain. Codrescu gets deeper and deeper into a metaphor for humanity, and the chemist goes right along with him.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It's Monday, the day we read from commentator Andrei Codrescu's mail. Well, actually, this is the first Monday we've ever done it. And we'll let Andrei do the reading.

ANDREI CODRESCU: The following e-mail messages from strangers came within minutes of one another and provoked me to two different responses. The first became an exchange; to the second there was no answer. Any listeners who can tell me why wins a drink from me at Molly's, if I'm there after you hear this. Here they are.

(Reading) Dear Professor Codrescu, Wikipedia credits you with a poetic near truth that the (unintelligible) to larva has a brain, but that when it finds its perch, it has no further use for it and eats it. I am thinking of using this example in my writing. And if I do so, I will want to acknowledge it correctly. So please tell me if the Wikipedia account is essentially correct, and if so, where in your work I can find the story. Sincerely, Paul Braterman, professor of chemistry, University of North Texas.

Dear Professor Braterman, not very good with Wiki and using dial-up, besides, but the information is accurate. I did say that somewhere, but it would take an army of grad students to dig it up. I'm also not sure where I dug it up myself. So if you credit the truth, I can't help you, but if you credit the metaphor, I'll take it. Andrei Codrescu.

Professor Braterman to me. So something like has no further use for its brain. And in the words of the poet and essayist Andrei Condrescu: Eat it, would be acceptable. This all relates to a very serious point. The close evolution of the relationship between notochords - like the sea squirts - and vertebrates, like you and me, and the way that developmental gene kicks in at different points in the life cycle and can dramatically affect the outcome.

Andrei Codrescu to Professor Braterman. Absolutely acceptable. Your work does sound very serious indeed. Do you think it possible that we are devouring our brain right now by amusing ourselves to death, for instance? Or that there is a point at which we are literally going to go notochord? I know I'm asking you to speculate way outside your research, but what would make such a gene kick in? Why do they kick in or back like that, anyway? Don't have to answer these. I just can't help essaying.

Paul Braterman to me. I think you can have a lot of fun with these ideas. To be technically accurate, I am a chemist, not a biologist and had to look it up. You should say go tunicate. The notochord is actually the structure similar to a backbone present in immature sea squirts. So, in a sense, and in this idea I would like to retain my own intellectual property rights. We are all sea squirts that never grew up. If any of these sees the light of day ever, I will make sure you get a copy.

Second e-mail message. Andrei, I am a producer for S.T. Entertainment and we're having our annual fear fest event on Starz, an all month long STV on Demand. This year, the theme is Haunted America. And we will be down in New Orleans and are very interested in your participation in discussing vampire lore. I will be scouting New Orleans this Friday and I was wondering if we could meet. I hope this works out. S.H.(ph), senior producer, Starz Entertainment. I didn't answer that one.

BLOCK: Andrei Codrescu is a professor of English at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

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