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?

“Your Inner Fish”

Most people accept the idea that we are descended from earlier primates. But descended from fish? That might seem to be a stretch. In Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (2008), Neil Shubin makes a vivid case. He traces our body parts back to fish and beyond. And he comments passionately on the beauty and unity of life’s development over billions of years.


Tiktaalik, ready for push-ups–and land

Along the way, Shubin narrates the painstaking detective work of the paleontologist. He weaves the opening chapters around his own years in the barren Arctic as he helped to discover, in 2004, the 375-million-year-old fossil of a missing link between fish and amphibians.

The discovery  of Tiktaalik, Inuit for “large freshwater fish,” was exciting for several reasons:

All fish prior to Tiktaalik have a set of bones that attach the skull to the shoulder, so that every time the animal bends its body, it also bent its head. Tiktaalik is different. The head is completely free of the shoulder. This whole arrangement is shared with amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including us. The entire shift can be traced to the loss of a few small bones in a fish like Tiktaalik. (p. 26 in the Vintage paperback edition).

Say hello to our neck.


In the middle, Tiktaalik’s new neck.

There was another surprise about Tiktaalik. Earlier fish had fins with bones that were the ancestors of our arms and fingers. To these early forearms and fingers Tiktaalik added small bones that were, in fact, the earliest wrists. These crude wrists mean that Tiktaalik, as Shubin puts it, “was capable of doing push-ups….The wrist was able to bend to make the fish’s ‘palm’ lie flat against the ground….Tiktaalik was likely built to navigate the bottom and shallows of streams or ponds, and even to flop around on the mudflats along the banks” (39-40).

So Tiktaalik had fins capable of supporting the body—these were the first limbs for moving on land. Since then, the same structure has appeared in not only the arms, legs, and hands of humans and other mammals but also in the wings and flippers of bats, penguins, birds, and whales. In all these, one bone is attached to the torso (in us, the upper arm bone and the upper leg bone), followed by two bones, followed by little bones (wrists and ankles), followed by smaller fingers and toes.

limb bones

Limb bones from fish to humans

Shubin’s other chapters trace the development of teeth, heads, noses, eyes, ears, and even bodies themselves, which emerged 3.5 billion years ago. In each chapter at some point, Shubin pauses to explain his appreciation of the patterns he is describing. “Beauty” and “beautiful” are common words in the book. The anatomy of the head “is deeply mesmerizing, in fact, beautiful. One of the joys of science is that, on occasion, we see a pattern that reveals the order in what initially seems chaotic. A jumble becomes part of a simple plan, and you feel you are seeing right through something to find its essence” (82). Echoing Carl Sagan’s thought that “looking at the stars is like looking back in time,” Shubin says the same about the human body. “If you know how to look, our body becomes a time capsule that, when opened, tells of critical moments in the history of our planet and of a distant past in ancient oceans, streams, and forests” (184).

I would guess that many scientists feel the same way about looking into the essences behind the apparent chaos. But not many write about it so well. That’s unfortunate, because I think that if they did, more non-scientists would value what our biological history can tell us about who we are and what our lives mean.

Near-Death Experiences: what they tell us about THIS life

Near-Death Experiences: what they tell us about THIS life

Lots of buzz this week about “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience with the Afterlife” by Dr. Eben Alexander, in Newsweek. The Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon changed his mind about the afterlife after getting a taste of it during a week-long coma resulting from a bacterial infection of his cortex. Alexander experienced the sense of floating, the light and the glowing darkness, the angel-like guide reassuring him of love—all the hallmarks of many near-death experiences (NDEs). Seeing and hearing, questions and answers all merged into instant sensation and understanding, he reports.

The brain expert’s testimony in support of an afterlife has been very convincing to many, and not at all to many others.

I don’t believe in an afterlife—not, at least, of the kind that is glimpsed in NDE’s. But that controversy overshadows a different question: does Alexander’s experience tell us anything new about our present life; what does it reveal that is normally obscured by our everyday thoughts and activities? Perhaps, for example, something about the course of the disease? Or an insight about how a verbal narrative is assembled after such a wordless vision, or how Alexander’s Christian upbringing manifested itself during what he felt was a transcendent experience.

One passage that interested me was a claim about the universe.

Modern physics tells us that the universe is a unity—that it is undivided. Though we seem to live in a world of separation and difference, physics tells us that beneath the surface, every object and event in the universe is completely woven up with every other object and event. There is no true separation.

Before my experience these ideas were abstractions. Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also—I now know—defined by love. The universe as I experienced it in my coma is—I have come see with both shock and joy—the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.

The idea here is that the unity of things is also a connection of love. Certainly one of the features of a person’s love for another person (or for a deity or cause) is that our customary sense of boundaries fades away. The separation between the self inside and the world outside dwindles. Loving leads to unity.

But does unity lead to love? Is a feeling of harmony and commonality with other people or with nature conducive to the emotion we call love? It seems to have been so for Alexander. Perhaps with his cortex put aside, older parts of his brain registered a basic level of being alive with light, motion, and warm emotion and without separation and danger. Such a unity would indeed be loving.

We can read any text in a mood to doubt or to believe.  Sometime it’s good to try both.