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Nature’s Dominant Creature

A cross to bear

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.

Tunnel Vision

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

Henri December 14, 2009 at 6:51 am

Awesome and thought provoking post. I completely agree about the H1N1 hysteria. It makes no sense at all. Taking a step back and looking objectively at what is going on is critical at these times.
.-= Henri´s last blog ..How to Overcome Procrastination =-.

David December 14, 2009 at 7:10 pm

I agree. Looking at things objectively is pretty tough though, maybe impossible. We’re locked in our human-sized bodies with our human-scale worries and biases. Who knows what is going on that we can’t see :)

Jay Schryer December 14, 2009 at 7:07 am

When I first read the title of this article, I smirked, and said to myself: “I hope he’s talking about bacteria, cause they kick the shit out of every other organism.” Then I read it, and you really WERE talking about bacteria! So congratulations on nailing the title! :)

One point that I would like to add is this: Everything we use to try to kill them only makes them stronger. We develop antibiotics, and they adapt by becoming resistant to those antibiotics. Staph infections used to be easily treatable with Methicillin, but it has since evolved into methicillin-resistant versions (MRSP) which is much more dangerous, even deadly.

We pride ourselves on using antibacterial soap and wipes, proudly referencing the fact that they “kill 99.99% of all bacteria!” without realizing that they leave behind the strongest .01%, which then get to breed more easily (because we just killed all their competition) and pass on their genes to the next generation of bacteria. So again, they win.

Bacteria really do rule the planet. Thanks for putting us in our place ;)
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..Paying It Forward =-.

Lisis December 14, 2009 at 9:00 am

Perhaps they read Darwin, and Nietzsche, and personal development blogs to overcome the challenges we throw at them?

Hm… all this time Doug Adams had me thinking Mice were the dominant creatures… and then dolphins… I wonder where bacteria ranked on his list?

David December 14, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Haha. Nietzsche is very popular among the more philosophical bacteria. Like Jay said, what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger.

David December 14, 2009 at 7:15 pm

One point that I would like to add is this: Everything we use to try to kill them only makes them stronger.

Absolutely, and that’s a discussion I decided to leave out of the post because it was getting too long. One scary thing bacteria can do is share information. Any bacterium can share genetic information freely with any other nearby bacterium, they don’t have to be descendants. In that sense they are like one humongous organism that cannot be killed.

Jay Schryer December 15, 2009 at 7:16 pm

I woke up this morning, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I meant MRSA…not MRSP. I think the xmas shopping has infected my brain. MRSA!!! Man, I can’t believe I did that!
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..Paying It Forward =-.

Srinivas Rao December 14, 2009 at 10:25 am

A very thought provoking post David. We are so caught up in most of the issues of our lives that when you break it down like this, it makes you realize that there is definitely a hysteria occuring because of social conditioning. MY parents seem to be part of that hysteria and seem worried daily about it. So, got my vaccine to put their minds at rest.
.-= Srinivas Rao´s last blog ..Mad Libs of Wisdom from the Skool of Life =-.

David December 14, 2009 at 7:18 pm

How did you feel after getting the vaccine? Some people have said it made them feel awful for a while.

Daphne December 14, 2009 at 11:11 am

This is a wonderful post, David. Thank you for the reminder and a renewed sense of perspective. I liked your comment on this, too, Jay – we are definitely acting in the best interest of bacteria when we think we’re doing the opposite. Do you both think this is simply humans’ short-sightedness, or is it something bigger and more complicated?

I have to say, too, as a married woman looking forward to raising a family, the prospect of the human race running out of time makes me sad. I know that it’s in a larger scale than my lifetime or that of my children, yet I still would like to think that the legacy that the human race leaves behind might be a positive one. Something to contemplate.
.-= Daphne´s last blog ..No Marriage Is Perfect =-.

David December 14, 2009 at 7:25 pm

Well the human civilizations that came before us left mixed legacies… some virtuous achievements, and some atrocities. I think any period of human history will necessarily contain both. If we’re the last few generations of humans, I suspect our legacy won’t be much different. The only difference will be that none of the remaining creatures will be aware we existed at all.

Miche | Serenity Hacker December 14, 2009 at 12:11 pm

David, great job! This was a great read, the first one I’ve come across the really gets into science, evolution, and a healthy reverence toward microbes while deconstructing our fears about the H1N1 virus. I totally enjoyed it. Thanks.

Miche :)
.-= Miche | Serenity Hacker´s last blog ..Is Passion Necessary for a Meaningful Life? =-.

David December 14, 2009 at 7:25 pm

Thanks Miche, I’m on a science kick. Expect more talk about life on earth in the near future.

Trish Scott December 14, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Not to mention rocks! Consciousness IS. Everywhere in everything. Can’t get away from consciousness. So what form we happen to inhabit at the moment doesn’t matter. Enjoy what there is to enjoy :).
.-= Trish Scott´s last blog ..…did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything? =-.

David December 14, 2009 at 7:27 pm

Well said Trish. I am still trying to wrap my consciousness around what consciousness is. Check back with me in 25 years, I may know more then.

David December 14, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Hey great comments everyone, I’ll respond to them individually a little later today — I’ve got people waiting behind me for this internet terminal.

I’m off to get my science fix by visiting Wellington’s world-class museum, Te Papa. :) I’m bringing 100 trillion friends with me.

Patty - Why Not Start Now? December 14, 2009 at 3:40 pm

You certainly put this life thing in perspective, David. Somehow it always comforts me to be reminded that the human race is just a blip the evolutionary timeline. And the Bryson quote was a nice addition – love him.
.-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..A Cat’s Wisdom =-.

David December 14, 2009 at 7:28 pm

I am just about finished his book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and that’s where this whole line of thought (and my research) came from. He writes with humor and compassion, the best way to present science, IMHO.

Lisis December 14, 2009 at 9:56 pm

I loved that book! And his other one… A Walk in the Woods. Awesome sense of humor and he makes the most complicated things sound simple.

David December 14, 2009 at 10:22 pm

Yes I am suddenly a big fan. I’ve seen a few backpackers reading his Australia travelogue, Down Under.

It will have to wait though. As if by fate, I found a copy of Atlas Shrugged (on my life list) at a book swap in Napier. I left Heart of Darkness for the next person.

Erin December 14, 2009 at 4:57 pm

May I add another point in support of your cheerful thoughts for the day. Humans are multi-cellular organisms, and as our cells degrade over time and under stress or toxic conditions, they divide in an attempt to repair themselves. After they divide 52 times, it is game over and we die.
.-= Erin´s last blog ..Reconcile =-.

David December 14, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Yikes! Didn’t know that. Is that the mechanism behind aging?

Marcus December 14, 2009 at 7:26 pm

A pretty interesting perspective, I’m finding it hard to disagree. Although our time here might be limited however, I’m going to do my best to enjoy it! Though the next time I reach for that hand sanitizer, I’ll remember these words! Want to dance?

David December 14, 2009 at 7:30 pm

“Enjoy it” is fantastic advice, I will too. Have a good Monday!

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) December 15, 2009 at 2:04 pm

The pic you used is intereswting to me~ it highlights the Christian interpretation of evolution, for those who are not Creationists. The idea of a “staircase” of life, with the one’s closer to God happening to be human~ justified colonialsm.

I was raised a Creationist, and accepting the theory of evolution was one of the hardest challenges I’ve ever had. This is a topic I am unable to discuss with family~ they fear for my soul and it all gets very complicated.

Reading Gould (love his writing voice!) whilst studying stats as an undergrad and exploring comparative theology lead me to “cross over”. It is a misconception that Darwin wrote about evolution as a phenomenon of progressive “improvements”, rather, he highlighted the variability that exists and it’s importance to survival. That a species is able to adapt for survival does not make them “better” than the species without the adaptions, simply better able to survive the current environment.

Thus, all are equal~ what scriptures and first nation oral histories have been remining us across the ages. Disappointing for those wanting to justify ill treatment of Other, be that animal, human or environmental.

I too do not think we are decended from apes. Looking at the evolutionary tree shows me that we share a ancestor though.

David December 15, 2009 at 7:12 pm

My interpretation of the picture was a bit different. To me it represents the increasing complexity of human beings as they evolve. We’ve reached a stage where our minds are so capable of analysis and foresight that they make us suffer. In other words, we’re so complex that we have a cross to bear that other species don’t.

I’m really not sure what the artist intended.

As for humans descending from apes, there are different ways to interpret that statement too. Most seem to think it means we descended from chimpanzees or other apes we are familiar with. We certainly have a common ancestor with modern-day apes, and that ancestor was certainly a primate. So I think we believe the same thing.

shirly December 16, 2009 at 1:51 am

FANTASTIC!!! i love this article. opens up my mind to my ignorance.

Brenda December 16, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Thank you, David, for this illuminated look at our precarious state of being. Didn’t you say once that your dad was a high school science teacher? Do your parents follow your blog?

It’s funny how the camps divided over this swine flu issue. I was mostly with the hogwash group, but several times I noticed a subtle fear arising when I listened to the urgency in my mother’s and others’ voices. I was more afraid of a government mandate to take some hurried, new vaccine. Luckily, that didn’t happen, nor did a pandemic obliterate millions like it did in 1918. This post shakes my equilibrium a bit, but I’ll be fine after I read another couple of hundred student essays.
.-= Brenda´s last blog ..The Unnamed Light =-.

Eric December 17, 2009 at 8:52 am

Very interesting post. Those little organisms sure do pack a punch. Luckily our bodies have an amazing ability to heal. It can be really mind blowing to think of the exact balance needed to sustain life on this planet, and how a simple microbe could wack us right out of that balance.

It reminds me of a quote from Men In Black. “There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they Do… Not… Know about it!” Change battle cruiser to bacteria or virus and the last sentence to “they get vaccinated” and you have the current state of today’s society.
.-= Eric´s last blog ..Listening to Your Inner Voice, Intuition =-.

Gabe December 17, 2009 at 2:15 pm

what about the inner ecological world of bacteria living in our own bodies? probiotic bacteria, living within, that was passed to us from our mother’s breast milk, has been keeping us alive from day one. some cultures help you digest dairy. some grains. some veggies. on and on and so forth. they actually eat your food for you. and their waste, when they’re done eating, ends up being the complex B vitamins and other nutrients that our body can then digest for ourselves. not only that, but healthy colonies throughout our system help keep the “bad” bacteria and other malignant microbes in check. that “Osmosis Jones” shit’s for real. bacteria is running the show bitches.

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