Reverence for (Some) Life

reverence for the world

Celebrating life

Here is a tug-of-war.

At one end of the rope is our common conviction that life—our life, other lives, life in general—is a good thing. For many, this conviction is little more than a cliche, a toast, an instinct for self-preservation that includes just familiar faces. For others with a religious orientation, the concept of life is much more vast, one face of the cycle of birth and death, a name for both flesh and spirit. Both groups, though, lean hard towards life and away from the state of dust and stones. We all ally ourselves with being alive and, in the abstract at least, with all things that are alive.

But pulling hard at the other end of the rope are the distinctions that we make every day between lives that we value and those we value very little or not at all. We favor people who are similar to us, we belittle others, and we are indifferent, sometimes fatally so, to many others. We accept abortion but oppose capital punishment, or vice-versa. We cuddle some animals, save others from extinction, eat a few, exterminate many. We value plants for providing us with food or a desirable environment, but the life of an individual plant in and of itself has no status for us. When it comes to actual living things, we have favorites and losers, the innocents, the inconvenient, and the unacceptable, with life and death consequences.


Despised pests.

In this tug-of-war between reverence for all life and differentiation among lives, it’s differentiation that usually wins. This isn’t surprising. We must draw distinctions each day in order to stay alive, deciding who to align with and who to oppose, what to eat and what to cut down, spray or ignore. Most people go through most days with no interest in revering life universally. We toast our health and long life and then eat our chicken dinner. We wake up in the morning feeling glad to be alive, we send a contribution to help poor children, we call the exterminator, and we pull dandelions. Even the conscientiously devout weed their gardens. None of that seems contradictory.

You might expect that after declaring that we value life above all else, we would place being alive above any other feature of a thing, and we would care for that thing because, no matter what else it is, it is alive. Insects might be repulsive, but they would be precious because they live. Plants might be so abundant that lawns and streets could be overgrown but their right to life would be defended while we starved from trying to subsist on dead animals and fallen fruit. Obviously this is not how things go.

Perhaps tug-of-war is not the best metaphor. Compartmentalization might be a better label. Reverence for life and preference for some lives are not strictly incompatible (we may hasten the death of a beloved relative to stop their pain) but mostly we put them in separate compartments.

marraige equality

Better lives. Marriage equality, June 2013. (

And what we also do is take reverence out of its compartment every so often when the time seems right and try to move society a step in its direction. We join forces to extend a better life to those of other ethnicities or social classes or genders or sexual orientation—as well as to some animals, to fetuses, to endangered plants. Protective reverence for all life may be beyond our reach, but we put it to powerful use when we are able. We may draw grim, unfair distinctions among other lives too easily, but as long as we remain a little uneasy that we do so, reverence for all life remains a cause that can be advanced.

Plants as Aliens

Plants are so familiar that we don’t see them very well. We see them insofar as they serve our purposes; we enjoy them and we cultivate them. But otherwise, fully occupied with our own world, we have little interest in theirs.

So to change our perspective a little, I will describe plants here as if they were from another planet, as plant-aliens. Defamiliarizing them may bring them closer.

Incidentally, imagining aliens who are very different from earthly animals is not so easy. Most Hollywood aliens, no matter how scary or unexpected, have eyes, brains, four appendages, mouths. Even the alien in “Aliens” has maternal instincts. You can’t say that about plants. Plants are, compared to us, genuinely bizarre.

  • Plant-aliens don’t eat anything. They make their own food.
  • Plant-aliens almost never move. They’re anchored to the well they dig with their roots to find water.
  • Plant-aliens live in a different time frame than we do, rigidly seasonal and circadian.
  • The brutal competition for light  (

    The competition for the light

    Plant-aliens absolutely require light. Their bodily structure and their behavior is determined almost entirely by their strategies for securing it. This springtime rush of new growth that we’re watching now? It’s mostly about plants hurrying to find plenty of sun before the emerging leaves on trees put them in the shade.

  • Plant-aliens are brutally competitive. While animals cooperate in countless subtle ways, plant-aliens are never nice. They have no reactions to other plants except to get around them if necessary for access to the sun. In human terms, they are egomaniacal sociopaths.
  • Many plant-aliens are giants. These tree-aliens tower over all animals. It’s their way of making very sure they can get to the sun, though of course there is always a taller tree.
  • Giant plant-aliens pull water out of the ground and up long distances without a pump. Animals, on the other hand, all require small internal pumps just to keep fluids moving around their body.
  • Surviving a deep freeze (

    Surviving a deep freeze

    Plant-aliens survive sub-freezing temperatures that last for weeks or months. The plants get as cold as the frozen earth around them. Animals can’t do that; hibernating animals keep a slow metabolism going to stay above freezing.

  • The sexual reproduction of plant-aliens is kinky. An single plant-alien may carry flowers with structures that are male or female or both or changing from one to another.
  • Plant-aliens breathe in carbon. It’s surprising earth’s atmosphere can support both them and the oxygen-breathing animals at the same time.

From the plant’s point of view, on the other hand, it might be the humans who are the alien invaders. Recent interlopers in their world, we have cultivated some of them, domesticated a few, eliminated many, and selected others to eat.

From either point of view, seeing plants as very strange gives us a fleeting glimpse of deep time. Plants and animals diverged from a common ancestor about 1.5 billion years ago. Since then, each group has found marvelously different ways to stay alive.  We don’t need to imagine other worlds to find radically different creatures.

Friends and Allies


Buddies. Allies?  (

“A friend will always be there for you.” Yes, but why?

Tracing the evolutionary roots of friendship is proving to be more difficult than expected. What are the evolutionary benefits of friendship? Friendship doesn’t boost the survival of the family genes, because friends are outside the family. And while altruism has indirect evolutionary advantages, friendship doesn’t come with the stringent expectation of reciprocity that is part of the “giving back” of altruism. The loyalty that comes with friendship can have survival benefits, but how do such relationships get started? It takes more than similarity and more than just being members of the same group.

Researchers are looking at how human friendship may be descended from the formation of alliances, short- and long-term, among animals. A BBC piece summarizes animal studies that suggest that friendship might have emerged from relationships that provide protection or strengthen social standing. One study describes two groups of dolphins that, after having fought each other in the past, came to their mutual defense when a third group started attacking one of them. Such an alliance, a primitive version of politics producing strange bedfellows, seems like the kind of relationship that could indeed evolve into the “us against the world” element of friendship that humans cherish.

Dophins have the capacity to befriend former enemies if necessary. (

Dophins have the capacity to befriend former enemies if necessary.

I like such explorations that, although they are only hypotheses and observations along the way towards an explanation, highlight an aspect of our experience that we may not even be conscious of—especially when it is as gussied up by cliches and marketing hype as friendship is. Thinking over my handful of long-time friendships, I think a sense of alliance—not of the defensive sort but a sense of solidarity—has indeed played a role in them, either early on or after a while.

Friendship-as-alliance certainly makes sense when you consider how quickly we humans can leap to suspicions about others around us, from siblings to other nations. So it’s not surprising that we’ve also inherited habits of stocking our lives with allies of many kinds, friends among them. Our lives, like all lives, are partly about protection—protection from injury, from death, from chaos. The pleasures of friendship and the energy that we invest in it are signals of a sort from evolution that friendship is a valuable protection.