Bruno Jacobs

The Simplicity of Life

Thinking and being are one and the same – Parmenides

The simplicity of life and materialist consciousness

Recent intensified research and discoveries, in parallel with several recent TV documentaries, actualize the American biologists Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan’s by now classical books Microcosmos and What is life? (1). These excellent authors are pronounced materialists who also exhibit very fruitful openness, sensitivity and humility.

In addition to clearly reproducing the latest findings regarding the origin and character of life, the most important scientific steps and conflicts in this fascinating story are also related to different approaches and thoughts from the animism of ancient times to the brilliant intuitions of antiquity to medieval concepts and Christian dogmas right up until the discoveries of modern science. From Anaxagoras “pan spermia” – the theory that life reached the earth from outer space (2) – and from Aristotle through Giordano Bruno, Galileo and Newton to Darwin and the enigmatic Samuel Butler, Pasteur, Schrödinger and the revelers, through different work on the biosphere starting with Vladimir Vernadsky (3) and more recently James Lovelock, we are also led to a number of clarifying definitions of, or perhaps rather approaches to the phenomenon of life. The concept of autopoiesis and the emergence of blue-green photosynthetic bacteria and the acid revolution are some of a number of key milestones that are also highlighted.

“We are ambulatory and speaking minerals”

The reading of these works induces a remarkable sense of fragility – our own fragility, as if we were beginning to recognize our own (in some ways old) cells in parallel with an insight into the indestructibility of life. It is a slightly disquieting but very optimistic reading. It is not just the dogged old Christian myth of man as the crown of creation that is pulverized under our eyes. Even the Darwinian insight, which distributed a mortal blow to this, is radicalized: we are not only completely dependent on bacteria; this view of evolution has been sharply nuanced. We also consist of ancient cell forms and are actually merely an expression or a form of bacterial life to which we can really be said to belong. Rather than, or at least as much as being a refined product of “natural selection”, we are the result of a long biological symbiosis of quite simple microorganisms (even right now within ourselves), of successful cooperation rather than of successful competition. The symbiosis is not only found in wildlife (for example, the little birds that clean the teeth of gummy crocodiles to get food safely and easily), but above all in the microcosm of life. Such insights have their implications.

“Thought derives from no world but this one; it comes from the activity of cells”

Life is also simple: one of the most important definitions concerns the simple fact that life – metabolism – constitutes a dynamic, actually thermodynamic, delimitation of the environment (which of course also implies cooperation within the living). In contrast to the ability of some inorganic molecules to duplicate themselves just like cells (or vice versa), life means the ability to react to the environment and sensation – the simplest bacteria know to sense, find food, avoid hazards and, in some way, remember and learn. This if anything is the common denominator of everything that lives. It is rather the boundary between consciousness or pure intelligence and so-called instinct that is artificial. It is as the authors point out, rather a matter of time than principle.

”This is a difficult lesson: the matter of our bodies, our possessions, our wealth is not ours”

Life is a kind of continuum. In later years, intensified studies and recent discoveries about bacteria have confirmed the work of the Russian pioneer Vladimir Vernadsky on the biosphere. Thus, for example, some microscopic algae are actively contributing to controlling both cloudiness and precipitation – hence also the temperature and meteorology – through their ability to “lift” and facilitate condensation at higher elevations (4). Other microorganisms have proved capable of creating significant cave systems or kilometer-long chalk cliffs. Their impact – even geologically – has been far more extensive than expected. The symbiotic relationships between the little and the big demonstrate the inseparable whole of life. As the authors point out, life is not “on earth”, life is in interaction with and affects the earth from 20 km up in the atmosphere down to thousands of meters in the underworld. Even human technologies and philosophies, “permutations of bacteria”, form part of the living biosphere. The same goes for our inner thoughts and most subtle emotions. We may be nature or the cosmos looking at itself and the “children of the sun” (5) – an ancient image that proved to be strictly correct chemically speaking. The continuously clearer knowledge that we are merely “lent” so to speak by nature, that we are just – which is quite significant – a temporary form, a certain concentration of life. This strengthens new paradigms as regards the understanding of human nature and place and should for example contribute to change or relativize the thought of one’s own death significantly. Only paradoxically, if you wish, a kind of materialistic consolation that far surpasses the usual old or new-born pathetic and fake ones. Interestingly, as a parenthesis, old Zen Buddhism, when it is at its best, isn’t far from such an approach.

The emphasis on the fundamental symbiosis and synergy of life – the ability or energy of several collaborating individuals being greater than their mere individual addition – strongly contrasts with the ideologically conditioned vulgar interpretation of Darwin and the tribute chorus to “competition”.

“The Decentralized Planetary Metabolism of Bacteria”

To a casual observer, the early Proterozoic world would have looked largely flat and damp, an alien yet familiar landscape, with volcanoes smoking in the background and shallow, brilliantly colored pools abounding and mysterious greenish and brownish patches of scum floating on the waters, stuck to the banks of rivers, tainting the damp soils like fine molds. A ruddy sheen would coat the stench-filled waters. Shrunk to microscopic perspective, a fantastic landscape of bobbing purple, aquamarine, red, and yellow spheres would come into view. Inside the violet spheres of Thio-capsa, suspended yellow globules of sulfur would emit bubbles of skunky gas. Colonies of ensheathed viscous organisms would stretch to the horizon. One end stuck to rocks, the other ends of some bacteria would insinuate themselves inside tiny cracks and begin to penetrate the rock itself. Long skinny filaments would leave the pack of their brethren, gliding by slowly, searching for a better place in the sun. Squiggling bacterial whips shaped like corkscrews or fusilli pasta would dart by. Multicellular filaments and tacky, textilelike crowds of bacterial cells would wave with the currents, coating pebbles with brilliant shades of red, pink, yellow and green. Showers of spheres, blown by breezes, would splash and crash against the vast frontier of low-lying mud and waters. (Microcosmos)

“Life is matter gone wild”

The research about our little relatives, the rich, multifaceted, fascinating and often beautiful world of bacteria – and the development of life at all – actualizes and awakens in a natural way poetic views, a relationship that likewise naturally is made in a poetic way. And the old analogous, intuitive thinking (the “like” – and, not least, the “beautiful as”) seems to even get an almost scientific dimension… It is no coincidence that a sentence such as “As life transmutes solar fire into all the material and energetic cycles of the biosphere, we pay homage to the ingenious ascension of the living plant” so strongly reminds us of the animism and pantheism of the great Russian 20th century poet Nikolai Zabolotsky, condemned by the Stalinist system.

Microcosmos and What is life? are such exciting and unusually successful contemporary examples of the desirable convergence between science, philosophy and poetry.

This also has, at least implicitly, or precisely analogically, a great political significance, although we do not necessarily share the authors’ perspectives in the final chapter.

(1) Microcosmos – Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution (University of California, 1986; 1997); What is Life? (University of California, 1995).
(2) Recent surveys have also shown that the presence of the life-critical amino acid in space and the upper atmosphere is more common than one thought. This also applies to the presence of organic pulp in comets.
(3) The Biosphere from 1926, also a fascinating and highly poetic piece (Copernicus, New York, 1997).
(4) Spora & Gaia: how microbes fly with their clouds; W. D. Hamilton and T.M. Lenton (1998).
(5) Even the banknotes themselves, yes, the economy, are pointed out with cheeky humor, stemming from photosynthesis and the vegetal kingdom’s “green fire”.