EVERY culture seems to have some sort of creation story that embeds a way of looking at the world in the hearer’s psyche.
One of my favourites has long been that of the minority Ainu culture of Japan. It tells of a tireless little bird, a wagtail, that flits over the primeval bog, flicking water to this side and that to reveal earth that it then flattens to firmness: a task that takes a near eternity.
Biologists Nick Lane and Bill Martin recently gave me another one.
In this story, there was a particular moment on a particular day — about two billion years ago — when a bacterium swallowed up an archaeon (an organism that was among the first “living” stuff on the planet). Both are microscopic, single-celled organisms with no cell nucleus, but they are distinct groups.
The little archaeon survived inside the bacterium and was great at pumping out energy; it became the first mitochondrion. The result was a new kind of creature that could produce multi-celled descendants. They are called “eukaryotes”. Before that, all of life existed as single cells. That archaeon fuelled the future of life on earth. Its memorial is with us still, as the mitochrondrial DNA in our body cells.
The extraordinary detail is that Nick Lane and Bill Martin believe the pairing happened just that once, although archaeons and bacteria had flourished on Earth for a billion years. It was a bizarrely improbable thing to have happened and, it seems, it hasn’t happened again.
The new creature’s descendants grew, got the idea that sex could be fun and, as the whole genetic diversification, natural selection thing began blazing away in more directions than skyrockets from a burning fireworks factory, they variously produced plants and animals in all of their glorious diversity. And us: we are “eukaryotes” too.
What it means, of course, is that EVERY living thing is related and every living thing more sophisticated than a bacterium can trace its origins to that special, singular day when the archaeon got together with the bacterium.
We should be observing an annual Global Eukaryote Day: a celebration of sexuality, diversity, life, unity, possibility, mystery and connectedness… of the marvellous beauty of all living things and our capacities to experience them: a festival of consciousness and the beauty of life from amoebae to redwood pines and us, and including fish, cows, scorpions, birds, turtles, snakes, toads and butterflies… and including all of the plants and animals we don’t know about yet because we’re still discovering our planet. Nature’s a kaleidoscope… a great beautiful kaleidoscope and we’re in the midst of it. So it’s past time give thanks to the bacterium and archaeon.
But this is where science lets us down — and lets itself down: ritual and celebration.
Science is a flux of wonder that, too often by far, is experienced by non-scientists as a dry, inaccessible and tedious compendium of certainties that can solve any problem we care to land ourselves in: our surest source of “truth”.
So — if we’re so devoutly smart — what do we, personally, make of the idea of the “Multiverse” — the mathematically derived explanation of existence in terms of an infinity of infinities, and the nine or more dimensions of string theorists. How do we conceive, personally, of sizes that range from the proton to the galaxy and beyond? How do we appreciate the billions of cells in our body or the inanimate atoms of which they are composed but which reduce to pure energy? How do we relate to the mystery that is us? Some of these things will not resolve in common, tangible, everyday statements we can make sense of with our limited faculties.
It was the Enlightenment that set us on our knees before reason. And reason has given us tremendous power. But there’s a larger part of us that transcends reason and our humanity demands that we attended to ALL that we are. We owe our insecurities about all of this to the overblown ideas about “reason” that morphed into populist dogma in the wake of the Enlightenment. It’s a dogma that expels emotion and responsibility from the nature of “reason” and confuses “knowledge” with “wisdom”.
So the importance to our self-image of rationality, reason and intelligence can lead us into some serious inhibition on the one hand, and broken self-esteem on the other: “I’m JUST a kitchen hand/housewife/labourer (or whatever),” have you heard people say?
And, how often, when we’ve done something simply because we felt like it, are we burden us with others’ expectations that we’ll come up with a “reasoned” excuse for it. “Why did you do THAT?”
So we make up something. We lie. Our lies, once couched in “reason”, too easily snare us in one-dimensional traps. We deny our intuition even when we’ve just acted on it. It’s too bad… it makes us less likeable.
That said, it’s important for our intuition to be informed by a degree of thoughtfulness.
And our popular notions of science’s place in this are often dangerously odd, and the general public understanding of science in our “scientific” society is irresponsibly limited. There are, for example, many, many literate, educated people who believe that the Earth’s shadow is responsible for the phases of the Moon, that we use only 10 per cent of our brains, that humans lived on Earth before the last dinosaurs were extinct, that population growth is still accelerating, that there’s “zero” gravity in space, that hair and fingernails keep growing after you die, that there are non-surgical ways to make a penis bigger, that there is a “cure” for split ends and that not winning a lottery increases your chances of winning the next time… and the scary bit is that, because we know so little, but with such intense certainty, we heap enormous expectations onto professional science, relying on people in white coats to come running in and mop up after our every social and moral blunder.
Science began as human response to the great mystery that is the Universe. In his diary, Rene Descartes, the 15th century French soldier whose mathematical genius paved the way for the emergence of modern science, recorded that “one night when I was in a deep sleep, the Angel of Truth came to me and whispered the secret connection between geometry and algebra.”
Then there is the story of the great Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, a co-founder of quantum mechanics, who was asked by a student about the superstition attached to a horseshoe Bohr had nailed to the door of his summerhouse. Bohr denied believing that the horse shoe brought him luck, then mischievously added: “but I understand that it works whether you believe it or not.”
Albert Einstein said his life work in physics was an extended meditation on a dream he’d had as a child: he was on a toboggan that and the stars — it was night time — changed colour as the toboggan went faster and faster down the hill. And, in his late 60s, he described a moment he vividly remembered from his childhood: “I experienced a miracle… as a child of four or five when my father showed me a compass.” It excited him so much that he trembled and grew cold. “There had to be something behind objects that lay deeply hidden… the development of (our) world of thought is in a certain sense a flight away from the miraculous.”
Science is a creative, exciting, powerfully enabling and imaginative realm, and it is a wonderful tool used well. A great part of science’s inspiration is awe: an experience of awe that is not totally different from the awe that, for millennia, has inspired the genuine mystics of many cultures. But science has not yet unravelled the mystery. Nor, in its entirety, is it ever likely to.
For that to happen, and for it to be intelligible, the mystery would have to be no greater than the reach of the human mind, and the human mind’s shortcomings make themselves abundantly clear.
Science serves us best when it inflames us with inspiration and excites our imaginings, when it encourages our best impulses: to compassion, to delight, to possibility, to our sense of existence, to appreciation… to value ever more highly the humbling gifts of awe and wonder.
So, on this two billionth (more or less) anniversary of the establishment of multi-cellular life forms, let’s now light a little candle for Global Eukaryote Day, and take it from there…