Of Dinosaurs, Genes & Aliens

The thing about travel is it lets you indulge in conversations that you otherwise may not have: With car drivers (White Tiger, Driver Shiva or Murugan and Driver KillerMan ) for instance.

We were returning from a trip to Chichen Itza by van. The drive is a good three hours, and the husband was chatting amiably with the van driver, while we pulled out our books to read. I settled down with ‘The Gene’, By Siddhartha Mukherjee. The book is one that requires concentration, especially for one who made stout Biology teachers quail. The book is held tight by a web weaving historical context, scientific detail and personal insights. It is a fascinating read, if somewhat heavy going in places.

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Genetics as a discipline had a number of misdirections and key researches almost lost to mankind, like Mendel’s experiment with pea plants, but for a lucky discovery of his article over 50 years after his death. The book touches upon many such instances. It talks about the supposed brilliance of scientists, how scientists are after all human and how their personalities can sometimes thwart and stifle growth. I particularly enjoyed the little quotations at the beginning of every chapter.

Every now and then, I stopped to take in the rustic scenery outside in the Yucatan province. Up in the front, the conversation was flourishing, if in a somewhat one-sided fashion. The van driver liked his audience and his theories grew wilder, and his tales more grandiose.

The man said he was originally from Canada, then moved to US before settling in Mexico. His tales, at any rate, portrayed a colorful life – a trucker, a pop-star, construction, sound recording. We had niggling doubts as to why his life had followed the pattern it had, but did not dig too closely. (He had the power of the van remember?)

‘How is Gene?’ asked the husband turning his head wife-ward. I had gotten past the horrifying section on Eugenics thankfully and said a thing or two about what all mankind is answerable for. Evolution, I said, better have a good reason for cruelty.

’Ah! Evolution. I don’t believe in evolution as a theory. I have a theory’, said the van driver, perking up since he hadn’t spoken for all of three minutes. He bore the look of a man doing a grand flick off some sad sop’s tale from the internet, ‘My theory is that aliens are responsible for life on earth. I think that the aliens had tried to see if life can flourish on Earth with dinosaurs.’
Four second pause.
‘And then they found them too big. The dinosaurs were too big, you know? I think that the asteroid that hit the Earth was nothing but a nuclear bomb sent by aliens. You see it all the time, don’t you?’

‘Eh… What do I see all the time?’ I asked. I have to come clean and admit that I don’t see dinosaurs all the time. Or aliens if you come to think of it, and definitely hope not to see nuclear bombs sent by the unseen aliens to hit the now extinct dinosaurs. I like a quiet life.


‘I mean, look at the size of those computers earlier on, and look at them now.’ He stopped here for dramatic effect, like one coming with the argument that clinches all.’ The aliens then got a much better model with humans and current life forms and decided to drop a nuclear bomb on Earth to get rid of the dinosaurs.They were just too big for them.’

The husband and I exchanged significant glances in our minds without once looking at each other. “I will take it that you just consider it a theory.”, said the husband, a man who would have obviously done well in the diplomatic services.

“Well…evolution is a theory no doubt,” said the driver, as though conceding a poorly paid chess move by dim witted opponents. “But aliens is a better concept. You know the supposed asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs fell right here? Yes – right here in the Yucatan desert.” , he said opening his arms wide, and the van jerked alarmingly. I implored him to hold the steering wheel, to which he laughed, ‘Of course, it was a nuclear bomb sent by aliens, and it is funny that centuries later, we are talking about it, and trying to fit in theories like evolution.”

The Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, the site of the impact that decimated the dinosaurs.(Illustration: Detlev van Ravenswaay / National Geographic)

I set out to explain the experiments with pea plants, how the evidence set up the basis for genetics etc, but the man was bored, and said I must open my mind a little and consider the aliens theory. I bridled. I love a tall tale as much as the next one, but… The husband seem to sense my state, and shot me a warning look.

I had to concede that here was a fellow who had obviously educated himself on the Internet, and was proud of it. The Science teachers in his school days had done their best, and I too must learn to accept that he liked his erudition because he understood complex theories like aliens implanting life on earth.

By the end of the trip I needed some time to reflect, and when I did, I realized that travel had once again made sure I met a person so different in ideologies than myself. I hope he thought a little bit about things that could be proven vs things that could not be, when he reflected later on.

I, for my part, was able to understand why it is easy to believe compulsively written theories on the Internet.


Science lessons seem so far off tucked away in the recesses of the childhood brain. What time is left after earning one’s livelihood can easily be spent in the entertainment industry’s efforts to keep us glued: An industry that thrives on blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

As Lisa Randall says in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs:
The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows us to think about crazy-seeming concepts, but with an eye to identifying the small, logical consequences with which to test them.


What we need is to be able to travel more, so we get to see another’s view point every now and then, even if we do not agree. Especially if we do not agree.

After all, we are nothing but star dust.



The Yam Bajji Gene

The father’s sister had come a-visiting and I had taken her along to the grocery store when I first noticed it. There we were, sauntering through the aisles looking at assorted spices and grains and had just started to graze towards the vegetable section when I saw her start through the corner of my eye. She gulped and gave a longing howl. 

I wonder if you have stopped to take a scuttle down a lush carrot field with a rabbit. Many people don’t. Let me enlighten you. You will notice the rabbit react much the same way as the aunt did on seeing the yams in the vegetable section. The nose will wiggle towards the preferred veg. and try as they may, their feet will be dragged towards it. I could only marvel at genetics and wonder how genes could be this accurate. The father reacts the same way to the yam. He buys it, knowing fully well that it will not be accorded  the same kindness as the beans. Yet he goes for it, stating that he likes nothing more than yam bajjis (or yam fritters). You can see him salivating at the mention of the crisp coating over the yams and the hot, steaming nature of the delicacy.

I hear from the father and his siblings that my grandmother was exceptionally fond of yam bajjis. She liked the yams fried golden and crunched at them happily with her cup of coffee. She threw the bajjis in with a precision that would have professional basketball players envious and then, she  contentedly poured the coffee into her mouth from a steel tumbler poised at the right angle and a height of 3.2 metres above lip level. When one saw her then, one could see a contented soul.

The Yam Bajji Gene
The Grandmother with the Golden Yam Bajji Halo of Contentment

That must have been it. A vegetable that gave their mother so much joy must have been the reason the father and his siblings love yam bajjis. I chided my scientific half for rushing to a yam-gene-conclusion.

I indulged the aunt and bought her the yams. One cold evening, I walked in to the kitchen to see a factory in progress. On one side, golden, crisp yam bajjis were being fried and on the other, delicious steaming cups of tea and coffee were being made to accompany them. She told me that since children usually did not like yams as much as potatoes, she made potato bajjis and yam bajjis. You have to grant it to grandparents to take everyone’s tastes into account, even while making something as simple as an evening snack. I smiled and settled down happily to tuck into the yams bajjis. The aroma of fried asafoetida and rice flour is irresistible.

The toddler son, was having his day with the bajjis too. But I noticed something weird. He was not going for the potato bajjis. He was going for the yam bajjis. If given a potato one, he was giving them to me and was agog when given the yam ones. His grandfather will be thrilled to hear that for sure. Maybe, there is a yam-bajji-gene that has resurfaced in his generation. My grandmother, (Visalam Paati ) will be very pleased.


PS: I am referring to Raw Plantains in the article, but Yam Genes sound better than Raw Plantain Genes, so I am not changing all references.