Marine Biologist Who Killed 'Oldest Living Creature On Earth' Sets Story Straight: Ming's Brethren Routinely Become Chowder Anyway

By Gabrielle Jonas on December 9, 2013 9:26 AM EST

The Walrus and the Carpenter speaking to the Oysters, as portrayed by illustrator John Tenniel in Lewis Carroll's classic, Through the Looking-Glass speaks to issues raised recently by the relationship between marine biologists and their subject matter. (Photo: John Tenniel)

In an effort to address what he called falsehoods and misleading implications in the media, Dr. Paul Butler told the International Science Times last Sunday that he wasn't the marine biologist who killed Ming and that, moreover, Ming was not much older than its mollusk brethren who routinely find their way into chowder anyhow.

Reports that marine biologists killed the oldest living creature on earth were greatly exaggerated, Butler said, because Ming could not have legitimately held the title of eldest animal in the world to begin with. "We have never claimed that Ming was the oldest living creature on earth," Dr. Butler said. "It was the longest-lived non-colonial animal whose age can be accurately determined," he added. A colonial animal is  an individual organism that exists en masse, such as a coral. But Ming may not even have been the oldest clam he argued, because there are so many clams in the ocean. It would have been an incredible coincidence if the research vessel trolling the Icelandic coastal waters for research clams had dredged up the oldest one.

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"It was almost certainly not even the longest-lived specimen of this species, Arctica islandica," Butler said. "Because there are tens of millions of them in Icelandic waters, it is statistically inconceivable that we collected the actual longest-lived specimen. This species is commercially harvested for use in chowders, so anyone who eats clam chowders could have very possibly eaten the flesh of older animals than Ming."

Butler was not even on the research cruise investigating climate changes that dredged up Ming in 2006, he said. "The animal died, along with about 200 other live collected clams, by being frozen onboard when it was collected." By the time he encountered Ming, as part of a marine biology team at Bangor University analyzing the mollusk to gain insight into ancient ocean temperatures over the last millennium, Butler said, Ming was long dead. He admits prying open Ming to determine its age, but maintains that so doing was "an important aspect of the scientific method."

The scientific method in this case involved sclerochronology, the counting of rings on the hard tissues of invertebrates, enabling scientists to reconstruct past climatic conditions and so help us understand contemporary alterations in our climate, such as global warming. Examining the outside of Ming's shell, Butler had determined it to be 405 years old, but in 2009 or 2010, he said, he pried open Ming to find that he had been off by 102 years, and published a journal article in 2012 saying that Ming was actually 507. The report led to an interview by ScienceNordic, which covers research in the Nordic countries, that was then picked up by the MailOnlineButler maintains the interview led to a widely-disseminated misunderstanding of his role in Ming's death, and sparked an international uproar over him killing the oldest creature in the world.

The media even misconstrued how Ming came by its name, Butler said. Marine biologists at Bangor University in North Wales had not dubbed the deep-sea clam, Ming, because it was alive during the Ming dynasty. The Sunday Times, a U.K. newspaper, named the mollusk after the former champion sprinter (once known as "the fastest white man on the planet" and Member of Parliament, Sir Walter Menzies "Ming" Campbell, who was unceremoniously ousted as leader of the British Liberal Democratic party because he was deemed too old and decrepit to be of service.

Despite the misunderstandings between humans, it's hard not to still feel a pang over Ming the clam. Yes, it didn't die because it was pried open by a scientist see how old it was, but it did die because one scientist froze it, and then was pried open by another scientist who wanted to see how old it was. While we wouldn't have known about Ming anyway if it hadn't have been brought to light and air by an inquisitive marine biologist just doing his good work, the bottom line is we do know about Ming, and there's no stuffing back this genie into the bottle. Yes, many of us may have eaten chowder made with clams hundreds of years old, which should give us all pause, for oh so many reasons. But no, we didn't know we were promoting the killing of venerable old clams by eating clam chowder, and the marine biologists did know they were killing venerable old clams when they dredged them up and froze them to death. 

Ultimately, a marine biologist trying to do work that could eventually help solve the problem of global warming got pilloried for killing an animal that was already dead. For that, he should get at least a little stream of the milk of human kindness that went flowing in buckets Ming's way.

On the bright side, the fact that it does bother us when one of very oldest living creatures that we know of died in the name of science speaks well of the human race. Do we want to bring scientific inquiry, especially when it harms no more than a clam, to a screeching halt because of it? No. But isn't it good to occasionally hold science's feet to the fire, just to keep it honest, even if one innocent marine biologist ends up with singed toes? Isn't it good to hold journalism's feet to the fire too?

And most of all, isn't it good that we honor age in a clam, even if we didn't honor it in a person such as Ming's human namesake, and many other humans for that matter? Wouldn't it have been nice if Ming had been in the position of his sagacious literary cousin, its fellow bivalve, the eldest, the unequivocally eldest oyster who is the only non-nonsensical, the only reasonable character in Lewis Carroll's The Walrus and the Carpenter?

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head—
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat--
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more--
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore 

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row. 

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
"Do you admire the view?

Wouldn't it have been nice if Ming had just winked his eye, and shook his heavy head?

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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