Size Matters

Small things are difficult to see. The smallest things are difficult even to imagine. We are missing life at its smallest, overlooking living things that came before us and make us possible. We need to look inside the box more appreciatively.

OPEN this terrific graphic from the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah for a trip into the world of small. Click on the slider, slide it to the right, and zoom in past a sesame seed, past a skin cell, then a blood cell,  a bacterium, all the way down to viruses, molecules, and finally a carbon atom. It’s a wild trip. 

The zoom takes you down into the roots of life. It also takes you back in time. Back billions of years, from complex single-celled creatures and building blocks towards the not–alive viruses that may predate full reproductive life, back to one of the atoms that makes it all possible. Small came first. And life stayed small for a long time.

Then it got bigger. Humans are not only complex but relatively large. Elephants, whales, and trees grow larger than we do, but hundreds of species of everything from dogs to Humans are not only complex but also relatively large. Elephants, whales and trees grow larger than we do, but hundreds of species, from cows to ordinary bushes, come in our size range. Up to a point and with exceptions, a bigger body survives longer.

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. They are the somethings–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 we think they are friendly, offer inclusion and protection.


But we don’t usually feel that warm about tiny things. That’s partly because we simply 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 even individual blades of grass. Imagine seeing the single–celled creatures floating in the air and in the water and on our skin, on other skins, in our food, in our rooms. Would we feel enveloped by life in the way that we do when walking in a forest or watching flocks of birds? If we could see all those individual cells pumping, crawling, swimming, dividing, could we find our something–larger in those somethings–smaller?

Dawkins: Not One of Our Ancestors Was a Failure

Richard Dawkins’s theme is upbeat:

All organisms that have ever lived—every animal and plant, all bacteria and all fungi, every creeping thing, and all readers of this book—can look back at their ancestors and make the following proud claim: Not a single one of our ancestors died in infancy. They all reached adulthood, and every single one [allowing for the inclusion of such outliers as in vitro fertilization] was capable of finding at least one heterosexual partner and of successful copulation. Not a single one of our ancestors was felled by an enemy, or by a virus, or by a misjudged footstep on a cliff edge, before bringing at least one child into the world. Thousands of our ancestors’ contemporaries fail in all these respects, but not a single solitary one of our ancestors failed in any of them.…Since all organisms inherit all their genes from their ancestors, rather than from their ancestors’ unsuccessful contemporaries, all organisms tend to possess successful genes. They have what it takes to become ancestors—and that means to survive and reproduce…That is why birds are so good at flying, fish so good at swimming, monkeys so good at climbing, viruses so good at spreading. That is why we love life and love sex and love children. It is because we all, without a single exception, inherit all our genes from an unbroken line of successful ancestors. (River Out of Eden)

Many readers love this passage. Its any-organism’s view backwards along the unbroken line of forebears celebrates the successes and joys of being alive. And it explains this success not as the result of human uniqueness or a generous deity but as nature’ own selection process. The same pride and pleasure we take in hearing about a great-grandmother who struggled, travelled, settled, and raised a family, Dawkins extends to all ancestors of all species, without exception. Any reader who may have earlier viewed evolution as alien and godless might feel a little less resistance now.

But other readers may take exception to the passage for other reasons. Some of that inheritance from our successful ancestors, we wish we would be spared. Down Syndrome, Cystic Fibrosis, some cancers, and other diseases are inherited to a degree. So are mental illness and violent tendencies. For those suffering from such inheritances today, the genetic filter has not been effective enough.

And then there’s bad luck. Many organisms that were as well-endowed genetically as “successful” ancestors might also have left offspring had it not been for factors beyond their control. The twin of that pioneer grandmother may have died in battle, gone down with the ship, succumbed to an earthquake, or starved in a drought—childless.

Last but not least, many people today are able to have children but choose not to. They may remain, though, no less “successful” in every other sense of the word.

In the end, I think these exceptions, instead of weakening Dawkins’ point, strengthen it—as if each living organism could say with conviction, see, so many different pieces, not only the genes but the circumstances too, had to fall into place for me to be here. And they did.