I moved from Ohio to the Northwest, where salmon are famously plentiful. I have always loved to eat salmon, especially grilled salmon. So, it is a perfect place for me to think of this great fish. I especially appreciate the fact that, with salmon, there is plenty of meat to bite into, inexpensively, and I can eat it to my heart’s delight. This is in contrast to the sophisticated tender fish that I can eat in Asia, but which is so expensive, and is served in extremely small portions even at sumptuous banquets, that I can barely satisfy my fish hunger! Come to Seattle and taste the juicy thick chunks of salmon. It’s literally like eating a sizzling Argentinian beef steak, and I am sure it is much healthier!
What I really like also is the life story of the salmon fish. It is a story of adventure and mystery, that we might even learn from, and I can actually watch part of its life journeys in real time, as the salmon swim heroically in the streams of the Northwest. You might know that the salmon often need to swim a thousand miles upstream, against the rushing waters pushing them in the opposite direction. And, they have to physically jump up at times to go over huge rocks and other obstacles, several feet high. This journey is so strenuous that watching them makes me feel tired. What amazing drive must they have to do this! And how do they know that they have to do this? What really is the inner drive?
Close to and facing my Seattle home, there is actually a river that salmon have to use to swim upstream. But because of the four-lane road construction through my local town, the government had to spend millions of dollars to make sure that the road did not cut off the stream, and block or interfere with the salmon run. In fact, the state of Washington built and rebuilt many roads like that, running into billions of dollars, which is a reflection of how serious Washingtonians view any interruption of this magic salmon run, so it is not a joking matter!
And then in some amazing way, the super marathon swimmers can find the original little stream they traveled from, and even the original spot where they were born and grew up, a long time, maybe years, ago. You can imagine the many bifurcations and forks in the streams as they thrash their way upstream, where they have to make instant decisions as to which path to take. Seattle land traffic is considered one of the worst in the country, because the roads wind around lakes and hills, up and down hills, zipping sharply left and right, and changing names all the time; the road that is my back road changes names 6 times in 15 minutes of driving! It’s all very unnerving, and I’m nearly always using a GPS, global positioning service, to find my way. What sort of high powered GPS does the salmon have? And there are not even names on the streams. A wrong turn and they never get to their original home of birth. And can you imagine, they do this in a fasted state, drawing on their fat and other reserves in the body. Just imagine yourself driving while hunger pangs are gripping you; I have, and it isn’t funny, and that’s why I always have a nut bar in my car glove compartment, just in case.
As the salmon return to their home, they mate, at this literal and poetic high point of their life, in the beautiful snowcapped mountains of the Northwest. Their life journey is finally over. Having spent all their energy making this long strenuous journey, they die, literally exhausted, essentially sacrificing themselves for a new generation to come. They have come back to their ancestral home, sweet home to fulfill their destiny, a fitting location after their many trials of life. I can’t but think, that, Seattle being where my mother was born, grew up, and went to university, before she took the “slow boat to China,” I am literally “coming home,” also. Back to where my mother grew up, among the white snow covered tall pines and firs, next to that huge Pacific Ocean, in the lovely State of Washington. In my life, I have had the pleasure of traveling thousands of miles, and eaten lots of good sea food dinners: I cannot say my life has been exhausting, and I have never had any significant fasting times (work in Asia comes with too much great food!). Yet in the turns and jumps over the years, I could poetically empathize with my fishy friends. But I have come home, finally, likely to live my last years here!
The newborn salmon, hatched in this gorgeous environment, wait for the spring flowers in full blossom, and then some salmon species decide, en masse, together with hordes of other very young salmon, to go! “Where we going?” could be the legitimate question that one young salmon asks the other. “I don’t think we know,” might be one answer. Or “I’m not sure, maybe the others know.” “In any case, we have to go, so let’s go, we’ll soon find out!” And so, a new generation of tens of thousands fly down the streams. Other salmon species decide to take their sweet time growing up, and enjoying themselves, in the many mountain streams and lakes, for even a year, before finally taking their plunge downstream. I’m a baby doctor (neonatologist), so I like to imagine that, many of the early swimmers are really just my kind of neonatal babies, and yet they can furiously swim swiftly downstream with great purpose: where did they get the intelligence to do all that? how could they do that while so very young? And with no parental guidance, no PG, as Americans like to say about movies, no one to advise them at all, about the long and dangerous journey ahead of them.
Down, down, indeed they go, downstream, the thousand miles their parents had struggled in the opposite direction, until they reach the spots where the stream waters mix with salty water of the great Pacific Ocean. Are they in for a shock? I wonder if they might be asking one another again, “Where are we?” “What’s going on here?” “The water here feels very different.” Indeed, their bodies now have to adjust to the new very different salty environment: how do they do that? But, their body begins to adapt, and on and on they still must go, until they realize now they have hit the real gigantic salty Pacific Ocean!
它们确实开始了旅程，顺流而下。与此相反，它们的父辈们在相反的方向上挣扎几万里。 它们终将抵达河流入海的混合水域。它们会震惊吗？我想知道它们是否会再问多一个问题：“我们在哪里？”；“这里发生了什么？”；“这里的水似乎很不同哪？”。确实，它们的身体现在必须适应新的海水环境：它们这样做吗？ 想必，鲑鱼的身体开始被迫渐渐适应， 直到意识到自己已经完全浸没在巨大的太平洋海水中！
From now on, how do they know where they should be swimming? There is a pathway ordained for them in the vast ocean, that is not marked for human eyes to see, but which they know, instinctively, what it will be, along a way that their ancestors used to swim. These elliptical pathways in the ocean can last from 18 months to 8 years to traverse. And each specific path is only for each specific species of salmon. Coho, pink, chinook, sockeye salmon; each have their own pathway, and they do not mix their paths. And, to complicate matters, “Americans don’t mix with Asians”: the Northwestern salmon certainly do not mix paths with Asian salmon coming in their own pathways from the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in their own long circles to return to the Asian continent, even if their paths, from East and West, may even seem to cross in the middle of the Pacific.
These great ocean pathways could each run 10,000 miles, and yet the salmon, now maturing as they swim, somehow know that is their destiny. I can imagine my inquisitive mother, on the boat to China, in the early 1930s, having a chance to chat with the captain of the boat about the complexity of the routing that he would have to take all the way, through wind and storm and waves, using relatively sophisticated compasses, radios, and stars to safely land thousands of miles away. How do the salmon manage their ocean navigations? Many mariners would love to know; maybe they could learn something to improve their own navigation.
This huge elliptical ocean circle pathway ultimately comes right back to where they began their ocean journey, after which the salmon then go upstream as their parents once did, for another heroic cycle of great feat. As they go up the creeks and streams, some are captured, and a few land on my dinner table, to my great delight. I can even savor their taste this minute as I’m writing this.
But what has puzzled scientists for hundreds of years, continues to fill me with amazement. As a scientist myself, I stand in awe of this huge puzzle, actually just one among thousands of other spectacular puzzles in nature. The Designer who was involved in designing every single minute detail of a salmon’s life has created such an interesting enigmatic life journey story, even for the lowly salmon for which I have a special love. And I am grateful for that, for biology and for my taste buds.
Biologically speaking, we lump these puzzles as puzzles of instinct. Darwin literally “gave up” on instinct, as impossible puzzles of nature that upset his basic views of life, and his theories of how we came to be. I agree, and the really funny thing is, we are finding, with time, that there are now more and more impossible puzzles, not less, the more we learn from biology, from the largest giants of nature, right down to the tiniest particles of life. Instinctive behavior seems programmed and designed after all, and no “natural mutations,” or “natural selection” could ever produce that.