Journey from Small to Smaller: Spirituality and Size

Try out the moveable “lens” on a great graphic from the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah. Slide the button to the right and zoom in from a grain of rice down past human cells to chromosomes and bacteria on down to viruses, glucose molecules, and finally a carbon atom.

Cell Size and Scale

(2008 Genetic Science Learning Center, University of Utah)

The zoom takes you down into the roots of life. But the graphic is also a time machine, taking us back billions of years, from complex single-celled creatures and building blocks towards the not-quite-alive viruses that perhaps predate full reproductive life, back to the atom that makes it all possible. Small came first—and life stayed small for a long time.

Then it got bigger. Today humans are not only complex but also relatively large. There are elephants and whales and trees larger than we are but also hundreds of species—from cows to dogs—in our size range. Up to a point and with exceptions, a bigger body is better at surviving.

Perhaps this trend underlies our perceptions of authority and even spirituality. The entities that we “worship” in any sense of that word are bigger than we are—not only gods but powerful people who seem “larger than life,” or the universe itself, or nature, or the breadth of evolution. They are the something-larger than we are often seeking. We grant even big trees and elephants a majesty that we don’t attribute to bushes and mice. Large things, if they seem to be the friendly kind, offer protection and inclusion.

Sunset worship

What we worship is larger than we are. (

But we don’t extend such sentiments to tiny things. That’s partly because we can’t see them. I wonder what it would be like if we were able to see individual bacteria, skin cells, the cells in a piece of fruit in the same way that we can easily see individual blades of grass. Imagine seeing the single-celled creatures floating in the air and the water and on our skin, on other skins, in our food, in our rooms. Would we feel enveloped by life in the way we do when walking in a forest or watching flocks of birds? If we could see all those individual cells pumping, crawling, swimming, dividing, would we find our something-larger in that something-smaller?


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