Three pieces of scientific information have been important to me in finding direction and perspective in my life. This scientific information is spiritual insofar as spirituality concerns a sense of a larger nonmaterial entity with which we have a relationship.
Over the long reaches of earthly time, species change, of course; some do so drastically, many become extinct, some have appeared as distinct species only recently. But what about the opposite case, species that have changed very little, that have survived so successfully in their niches that adaptations have been few? Are any of these creatures, often preserved in fossils, still wandering the forests or swimming the seas?
Yes. In a wonderful book, Survivors, Richard Fortey tracks down some of them, organisms that are not only long-term survivors but were here in only slightly different form when life took its momentous steps from the sea to the land, from lacking any bones to hanging from backbones. For most of us the last half billion years is an abstraction, but the picture springs to life when we are close up to the living descendants of its pioneers.
In the opening chapter, Fortey is on a beach in Delaware on the night of the annual horseshoe crab orgy when thousands of male horseshoe crabs come ashore to clamber on top of the females. Horseshoe crabs date back 500 million years, bringing their skeletons of armor from the water onto land long before the dinosaurs and throughout the mass extinctions.
In the darkness along Delaware Bay the scratching percussion of the crabs provides an unmusical accompaniment on an imaginary journey backwards in time: to an era well before mammals and flowering plants; a time before the acme of giant reptiles, long before Tyrannosaurus; backwards again through an extinction event 250,000,000 years ago that wiped nine-tenths of life from the earth; and then back still further, before a time of lush coal forests to a stage in the earth’s history when the land was stark and life was cradled in the sea.
Over the succeeding chapters, Fortey introduces us to the velvet worm in New Zealand, the colorful archaea microbes in Yellowstone National Park, the lovely Norwegian fir moss, the not-so-lovely lungfish. He values all their stories. “I would like to use the term biography if the word had not already been hijacked for humans.”
How did these survivors endure? “Survival is about endurance of habitat. Every organism has a place where it fits in, earns a living, reproduces—a niche in nature.” One common habitat that endures is the tidal flat, where the shallow sea meets the muddy shore. Organisms can burrow, find oxygen in the water and air, find food through filtering or scavenging. Here are horseshoe crabs, snails, small fish, many plants. “This habitat does seem like a good place to be for an organism with conservative tendencies. If its own place survives, then so will the beast. It is the right place to weather mass extinctions that affect many other environments more severely.…Stick-in-the-muds last longest.”
And as for species themselves, “there are particular properties of the organism itself that may have helped with endurance.” “Many… seem to have long life spans.” Horseshoe crabs, for example, take a decade to mature. And some enduring animals invest more resources in fewer progeny by producing “relatively large eggs or few offspring.” But there are no fool-proof formulae for long-term survival. “We must never forget about being in the right place at the right time. The inescapable truth is that the luck for old timers will eventually run out. It always does.”
Even for humans? The unanswered question hangs over the final pages. Will humans be counted among the million-year survivors in the future? Certainly, Fortey does not go easy on us.
[Early man] may have hunted edible mammals and birds to the point of obliteration even in his earliest days; he was the first species that deserves to be called the Terminator….The extinction event that is happening right now is the first one in history that is the responsibility of a single species. There’s no meteorite this time, no exceptional volcanic eruptions, no ‘snowball earth,’ just us, prospering at the expense of other species.
He worries about the survival of all species except for one, and it is not us. “I am not worried about the survival of bacteria. They will be there to rot down the last bodies of the last humans, and then the wheel of life will have turned full circle.” And so ends the book.
While the close of the book is apocalyptic, its substance is uplifting. Religious believers may feel dwarfed by the vastness of their deity and yet empowered by their own awareness of it. Similarly, for non-theists who follow science, learning of these ancient lives still present today after long eons is also both humbling and exhilerating.
I used to see people, including myself, as individuals first and as social creatures after that. Emotions and words, my own and others’, seemed the prime movers; groups and society as a whole seemed a context, a setting, not an essence. I was me, Brock Haussamen, a unique bundle of thoughts and feelings, and I could insert that bundle into conversations, relationships, and social conventions or not, as I chose. This perspective came easily to an introverted young man. And it was supported by the great romance of male/Western/modern/American individualism.
But over the last decade or two I’ve come to see how life—all life, especially human life—is primarily and profoundly social. It’s been a disillusionment and a revelation at the same time. By social, I mean that living things are largely built by interactions with others and for such interactions. We like to think that we humans are unique, distinguished from other species by our private consciousness and from each other by our winning personalities. But all these characteristics turn out to be products of the joys, pains, love, violence, tedium, and necessity of our connections to other people and living things. The social underlies the individual, not the other way around.
Many ideas and pieces of information have shifted my point of view. The earliest and simplest life forms relied on interactions. Billions of years ago, bacteria made the great leap forward of developing a nucleus when they absorbed other bacteria. Natural selection took off when bacteria moved beyond cloning themselves to exchanging DNA with each other. And we in turn carry around several pounds of necessary bacteria, interacting with it constantly; our body is literally a community. The engines of evolution described by Darwin—competition and cooperation—are largely social. Even plants, indifferent to each other, are ultimate competitors. For early humans, the social experiences of hunting and village life over hundreds of thousands of years led to language, organization, and morality. Religion relies on concepts articulated by groups and reflects a sense of security in belonging to the group itself. And current research tells us that good health, physical and mental, depends in large part on our engagement with friends, family, and community.
Our intelligence is more of a social instrument than we might think given how private our thoughts seem to be. Whenever we finish a particular cognitive task, such as figuring out a budget, our brain almost always reverts to thinking about ourselves or other people. (Try it.) And our consciousness itself, our self-awareness, apparently has roots in our brain’s capacity to keep track of other people and relationships; as part of monitoring that complex network, it seems that the brain constructs an “I” as an on-going player.
Viewed broadly, successful species have acquired special skills that make them effective at living in their particular environmental niches. Our human survival skill seems to be our social intelligence, and our niche seems practically global.
Of course, the importance of our social nature is obvious to us, up to a point. Love, family, community, friendship, charity, compassion, hospitality are all almost universal values. And yet we can also push back hard against the dominance of the social. When the social network feels oppressive, we stand firm on our individuality, our rights. We deny the legitimacy of the social rules, we change allies, feud with the family, withdraw. We agree with Sartre that “Hell is other people” and insist that true peace lies within us. And yet both those concepts reflect how near at hand the imagined perception of us by others is to our sense of self.
I’m tempted to conclude that we and all living things are essentially nodes, junctions, in a network of living things and that humans happen to be the kind of node that carries the illusion of being separate. But that might be going overboard. A better image is probably a Venn diagram in which each of us is the very small shaded intersection where the huge ovals of other people, other organisms, and the force of the past all overlap.