Though the hysteria surrounding the H1N1 flu has left the entirety of the news-watching world with the encouraging habit of frequent handwashing, it is hard to call it anything but an overreaction.
Not to dismiss the crushing impact of even one person’s death to their loved ones, but when we venture into the realm of cold numbers, H1N1 just doesn’t warrant this level of acute, global paranoia. Thus far, the worldwide toll is just short of eleven thousand. That’s equivalent to about a summer’s worth of highway deaths in the US alone, or about 18 hours’ worth of tobacco-related deaths. But that’s not news.
I won’t delve into the media’s reprehensible M.O. of manufacturing widespread panic in this article, though. The point I want to make has more to do with our place in the world. From our presumed throne at the top of the food chain, we often take it somewhat for granted that we’re a more advanced creature than any other, certainly better than anything with no brain and no face.
We’re all familiar with the concept of evolution. Life has been around, scientists generally agree, about four billion years. Starting from tiny, single-celled organisms, life has grown vastly more complex through trillions of generations of genetic inheritance.
The mechanism behind it is simple. Children are always slightly different than their parents — an undeniable and unavoidable side-effect of DNA’s not-quite-perfect method of replicating itself. So after billions of years, and trillions upon trillions of generations over countless parallel bloodlines, life on earth has inevitably become a dazzlingly creative and diverse lot.
Some life forms can fly. Some can have a hundred thousand babies at once. Some can smell blood miles away. Some can change color or regrow their tails. Some live 2,000 years. Some live 24 hours. Some can manufacture televisions and hand sanitizer in excess. Vive la différence.
When we consider life at large, we’re so hopelessly biased towards ourselves, it’s no wonder many people still regard us as not an animal at all, but a categorically different — and unquestionably superior — life form. Even Darwin’s wife made it clear to him that she found his notion that we descended from apes both abhorrent and absurd.
Even if we can maintain a polite humility about our astounding (and horrifying) capability to eradicate animal species, poison oceans and vaporize cities, we still have trouble shaking the presumption that we’re unquestionably on top on our little blue planet. Let me try.
If we look closer — microscope-closer — we’ll find we are not the kings of the castle, not at all. Compared to the real title-holder, humans are frail, dependent, and unquestionably doomed.
Here is the disturbing reality of life on this planet:
With only a few exceptions, all forms of life on earth are, by now, extinct.
If you round off to one decimal place, 100.0% of all species that ever lived are extinct. If you round to two, you get 99.99%. At the moment, we’re a part of that teeny minority that is lucky enough to be still playing out its dramas right now. Yes, that many species have failed to make it to today.
So extinction is the rule; there’s nothing exceptional about it. Mother nature tries something for a while, and when it stops working, it really stops.
A further unpleasant fact of life: biologists have discovered that the more complex a life form is, the quicker it goes extinct. That hapless cream-puff of the animal kingdom, the jellyfish, rather uncomplicated in form and function, has been around for 500 million years and counting. The average kick at the can, for a complex species, lasts four million years, which happens to be about how long we’ve been around.
The least complex forms of life, single-celled microorganisms such as bacteria, are by far the most resilient and successful creatures that ever lived. They’ve been doing their thing almost as long as the earth itself.
Yet we seem to think, that with Lysol wipes and handwashing campaigns — and by occasionally recalling shiploads of spinach and weiners — we can overpower (or at least outsmart) the more nasty of our tiny neighbors.
Their Planet, Not Ours
It certainly is worthwhile to be cleaner, and to be aware of microorganisms, but it’s probably a mistake to think we can dominate them, as we might if they were passenger pigeons or buffalo.
Author and science nut Bill Bryson puts it into perspective:
“Because humans are big and clever enough to produce and use antibiotics and disinfectants it is easy to convince ourselves that we’ve banished bacteria to the fringes of existence. Don’t you believe it. Bacteria may not build cities or have interesting social lives, but they will be here when the sun explodes. This is their planet and we are on it only because they allow us to be.”
That last sentence is not just a smug remark. It is the truth. We need them, and they don’t need us. Through their own sheer goodwill, or rather lack of ill-will, microorganisms allow us to breathe by generating the majority of the world’s oxygen, among other vital services.
Microbes have been found — in prolific numbers — in deserts, ice sheets, pits of acid, scalding ocean vents, the interiors of rocks and animals. They will not , as we might imagine, sequester themselves politely to garbage bins and sweat socks. They are everywhere. They’ll eat anything too, not just your table scraps but chemicals, metals, wood, and you.
It isn’t just their resilience and resourcefulness that makes them superior to us, it’s their unfathomable numbers. Obviously they outnumber us one-for-one a great many times over. But they also outdo is in total volume, and perhaps by an unthinkable margin. By one scientist’s estimate, there are so many microbes living underground in the earth’s crust alone, that piled on the surface they would cover the globe to a depth of fifty feet. Even if this grotesque estimate were overstated by a good thousand percent, that would still mean we would still literally be up to our eyeballs in them.
And of course they could kill us if they wanted to. Luckily they have no desires. How enlightened.
Bigger is not Better
It is time we gave microbes the credit they’re due, or at least humbly withdrew any implicit claim of human superiority. We are, by gross understatement, a new kid on the block here. From the perspective of the life’s entire history, we’re highly experimental, and probably needlessly complicated.
We’re damn lucky our temperamental and overcomplicated bodies even work at all. They do go awry all too often, running afoul of our own devices (think cars and cigarettes) just as often as a dangerous gang of bacteria. In any case, if we do expire, guess who’s always always there to clean up the mess.
And our cursed minds! For all their potency, they give us — for seemingly no reason — this searing, existential grief spared every other creature. We spend far more time agonizing over the imaginary and inconsequential than we do simply existing. As Pascal said, “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” Microbes are exceedingly good at that.
You may be thinking that you wouldn’t want to be a microbe. Well of course, I wouldn’t either. But to them it’s no issue because they are free from the human curse of desire. No brain, you see. I like having a brain and being human, but maybe that’s because it’s the only sensible response, knowing that we’re stuck with those troublesome qualities either way.
The evidence suggests that we’ve got no reason to believe human beings are destined to survive for much longer, speaking in relative terms. If the law of averages has anything to say about it, we’ve about used up our four-million-year allowance.
Looking even fifty years down the road, we have no clue what we’re going to do about the looming spectres of overpopulation, pollution, and climate change. And let’s pretend nuclear war isn’t really a possibility. These are supremely urgent considerations that really could wipe us out if mismanaged. Stacked up against evolutionary hall-of-famers like bacteria or viruses, we’re shaping up to be something of a blip on the radar.
So I for one applaud our gracious superiors. They’ve got it figured out in ways we almost certainly never shall. We just have to get over the ‘bigger is better’ mentality to recognize that. They are every bit as alive as we are, and they’re far better at staying that way.
As a saving grace, perhaps, we are the only species that even knows they exist.
Photo by Latvian
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