Such is Life

David Swain, New South Wales Regional Meeting

When a person possessed of an active mind explores nature, or ponders in imagination the broad range of organic creation, no single one among the manifold impressions that occur to him has so deep and powerful effect as that of the ubiquitous abundance of life.  Everywhere, even near the ice-capped poles, the air rings with the with the songs of birds or the drone of buzzing insects.

Alexander von Humboldt, 1859[1]

 We are called to consider the world as an enspirited whole, to accept no boundary to repairing and sustaining the Earth for the future, and to appreciate more deeply the creative energy in all living things and life processes.

Australia Yearly Meeting Quaker Earthcare Statement, January 2008

Everyone needs something to be in awe of. Something so big, or complex or incomprehensible that it’s impossible to get your mind around. Something “spiritual” perhaps. It may be art, it may be music, but I don’t know of anything more awesome than Life – biological Life.

Throughout the entire, perhaps infinite, universe, with its billions of stars and possibly trillions of planets, our little insignificant planet circling a middle-sized unremarkable star is, as far as we know, the only place where life exists.

And it seems probable that life has only developed once – or only once successfully – on our planet.  We are all related to every plant and animal on Earth.

So how did the first life come into being? Scientists have not been able to create life, although they have been able to create simple proteins, the building blocks of life, from inorganic chemicals.  We know the basic requirements of the first simple proto-cell: it would need a collection of proteins wrapped in a fat-like layer to separate it from its surroundings. Most importantly, it would need a chemical which controlled the way the proteins were formed and fitted together. And vitally, this controlling chemical must be able to replicate itself so more cells could be formed.  This controlling chemical in our cells is DNA, but in the primitive cells was probably the simpler RNA.[2]

This was the first natural marvel – or miracle if you like to think that way – in the pathway to life as we know it.

So the first cell started replicating and produced many offspring.  But the replication system wasn’t perfect and made a few mistakes. If the makeup of the new cell was worse than its parent, it probably didn’t survive, but occasionally the system chanced on an improved version.  This may have, in time, replaced the original type.  In this way a wide variety of single-celled bacteria and the even more primitive archaea evolved.

I suspect if life is ever found on other planets, it will be similar to these – particularly successful in their way, and very long-lived lifeforms, but they won’t be sending out coded messages from other planets that we can look for.  They are a bit inconvenient at times, but we couldn’t survive without them.

The second natural marvel – or miracle – was the advent of multi-celled lifeforms.  This seems to be related to the appearance of mitochondria, small bodies within cells.  We don’t know for certain where they came from, but one widely held theory is that they were once free-living organisms that somehow became entrapped within the cell of another organism.  They are the major sources of energy for the cell, and it seems that this extra energy was needed for the formation of multi-celled forms.

Multicellular creatures may have initially been just mats of similar cells, but exciting things happened once different types of cells evolved, able to work in teams.  The multicellular living things that we are familiar with are made up of these teams of cells.

Look at a simple leaf, for example. It has one type of cell, the epidermis, covering the outer surface, separating the leaf from its surroundings. The epidermis has small holes in it to allow carbon dioxide to come in and oxygen and water vapour to move out, but these holes are controlled by guard cells that close them to slow down water loss if the plant gets dry. Under the epidermis are the cells that contain chlorophyll for photosynthesis – and photosynthesis is a marvel itself.  Then there are the cells that transport the sugars made by photosynthesis to other parts of the plant, and the cells that act as minute pipes to carry water from the roots to the leaf.

In our own bodies there are about 200 different types of cells.

From there evolution took over, producing in time the amazing myriad forms of plants and animals we know today. So let’s leave evolution to proceed for many millions of years, and pick up the story with a group of ape-like creatures.  These creatures included a number of species we now call the genus Homo (man), who spread all over the world.  While all other species sought for increased fitness by growing larger teeth, claws or muscles, one originally insignificant species evolved by developing their brains.  We now call this species Homo sapiens (that is, us).

As their brains developed, Homo sapiens learned to make tools, to invent language.  They also were able to develop abstract thoughts – a stage that Yuval Noah Harari[3] calls the Cognitive Revolution.  After this our ancestors, as well as understanding lions and mangoes, could invent entities that had no physical existence.  As history went on, these inventions included spirits, gods, nation states and limited liability companies.  And once these inventions were incorporated into the culture, they became “real” and essential to life.  Whatever we feel about the United States of America, we cannot deny its reality, even although it’s only a mental construct. And without this ability to imagine the non-existent, we would not have the awe-inspiring art and music from my first paragraph.

Now to the crunch.  As far as we know, Life in all its wonder exists only on one planet in the possibly infinite universe, and there is only one species that can appreciate its awe-inspiring wonder, and that’s us.  We are also the only species in the universe that has the ability to preserve or destroy large parts of it.  This thought should inspire all our Earthcare activities.[4]

Life has had some pretty narrow squeaks.  There have been some five mass extinctions which have each destroyed 70 to 95 percent of the species existing at the time, and evolution had to start practically from scratch working from what was left.  So it is from pure optimistic faith that I predict Life will go on in some form for ever, or at least until the sun runs out in about 5 billion years, or some other cosmic accident intervenes.   All individual living things, however, have limited lifespans, from a few minutes to hundreds of years.  When my time comes to leave the wondrous phenomenon of life, I’ll be amazingly thankful at having been lucky enough to have been part of it.

 

[1] Von Humboldt, A , 1859  Views of Nature.  Translated by Mark W. Person, edited by Stephen T Jackson and Laura Dassow Walls, Published by University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 2014 ISBN-13: 978-0-226-92318-5

[2] See, for example, Maddox, J. 1998.  The likelihood of life In: What remains to be discovered. Macmillan, London.  ISBN 0 333 65008 5

[3] Harari, Yuval Noah, 2011.  Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Penguin Random House, London. ISBN 9780099590088

[4] “If one had to isolate a single all-consuming idea which has taken hold of the human race in the post-political era in which we now live, it is the interrelatedness of natural forms – the fact that we are all on this planet together – human beings, mammals, fish, insects, trees – all dependent upon one another, all very unlikely to have a second chance of life either beyond the grave or through reincarnation, and therefore aware of the responsibilities incumbent upon custodians of the earth.”  A. N. Wilson The Victorians. Page 230. Arrow Books 2002. ISBN 0 09 945186 7

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