The Democracy of Living Things

Unless we know better, we tend to view the totality of living things as a hierarchy. Humans are “higher”; among animals, big (whales) and cute (dogs) rank above small and ugly (insects); plants are disposable and/or edible; bacteria are bad unless proven otherwise. Big fish eat little fish. The struggle to survive goes to the “strongest” (the common misinterpretation of fittest).

A corrective lens to such distortions might be the thought of the living world as a Democracy of Living Things. You and I are citizens, and so are every crow, dandelion, rat, spider, mushroom, flounder, and elephant. We all share the challenges of starting our lives, surviving, and reproducing. We all struggle and rest and flourish, though some of us experience those conditions more consciously than others. In light of the differences among us all, such common ground is narrow but profound.

This Democracy operates under no formal political or legal safeguards, yet it remains reasonably democratic in that all its residents participate in the pursuit of their lives and in the local labors of their species. True, there are pecking orders, leaders and followers, and queens, soldiers and workers. But there are few tyrants wresting power from others and killing in order to hold on to that power.

All members of this democracy are endowed with certain entitlements. Having been created in the first place, they are entitled to live at least briefly, to struggle so they can continue to live in the pursuit of thriving, and to take their chances in the lottery of who will be spared in a disaster such as an earthquake that is fully beyond their control.

Still, most people can’t help but see other living things—including some of their own species—as anything other than fundamentally different from them, as less nuanced, less valuable. Our intelligence serves our ego so strongly. Perhaps the idea of a democracy of living things can encourage a more vivid acknowledgement of each individual organism. Imagine it: the Democracy of Living Things.

The Immortal Jellyfish

There is a species of small jellyfish that will, when it is sick or injured, instead of dying, fully regenerate itself. It will sink “to the bottom of the ocean floor, where its body folds in on itself—assuming the jellyfish equivalent of the fetal position. The bell reabsorbs the tentacles, and then it degenerates further until it becomes a gelatinous blob. Over the course of several days, this blob forms an outer shell. Next it shoots out stolons, which resemble roots.” These stolons grow into new jellyfish.

Turritopsis dohrnii  (Wikipedia)

The description is from Nathaniel Rich’s article in the New York Times Magazine (Dec. 2, 2012). Over two years, one lab colony of such jellyfish rebirthed itself ten times. The jellyfish’s official name is Turritopsis dohrnii; its nickname, the Benjamin Button jellyfish. As different from humans as it may look, our genetic makeups are similar.

The immortal jellyfish is a specialty of Dr. Shin Kubota at Kyota University’s Seto Marine Biological Laboratory. Dr. Kubota spends much of his days feeding, caring for, and observing his wards. His expressed goal is to become young again himself, perhaps even to achieve immortality, or at least to point a way towards a cure for cancer.

We think of dying as a boundary that all living things share, part of the definition of being alive. But death is not so absolute. Clichés such as “you live and then you die” and “life is short” sometimes call all the more attention to the exceptions. Bacteria, for example, don’t always die; they often divide. An individual bacterium may be destroyed or die from illness, injury, or antibiotics, but usually bacteria divide (or is it multiply?) into identical clones, which in turn will divide again.

And as for life being “short,” Buffalo grass, a prairie plant resistant to extreme weather, sprouts underground stems which in some locations may have been growing for the last 15,000 years. Among individual plants, the Bristlecone Pine named “Methuselah” still grows in California as it approaches its 5000th birthday. And Wikipedia’s lengthy “List of longest-living organisms” is not only long itself but has spawned the likes of “List of oldest dogs.”

I can understand that words for death and dying help people share their fears and grief when one of their group passes away from the circle of the living. And I can understand the simultaneous desire to imagine that that person is not “really dead” but still and fully alive in a better realm. But perhaps we don’t need to reach into a spiritual world for such consolation. We might contemplate the models here on Earth of how living, reproducing, self-healing, and dying are variously rearranged among species.