Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Word of Life

[T]he fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity.
—Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
Bearberry [Flickr page]

I am a hidden and ancient thing conveyed by multitudes.1 Tiny copies of my elegantly mutated essence are coiled up everywhere inside you. I formed them for you, I suppose, but really you for them. You are just temporary housing and transportation for encoded messengers of my being.

These coiled minions sit inside blobby packages that accumulate water and carbon compounds, following the directions I give via chemical codes that I set up eons ago. Proteins form and fold, and then clump into organelles and membranes, separating this compound from that, letting some things in while keeping others out, burning chemical fuel one molecule at a time to power movement and signaling and growth.

Of all those, growth is my highest direct priority. Replication and propagation are what I am and what I do, and my subordinates are rarely content to sit in a single package for long. As soon as things get settled, they unfurl their strings of evolved wisdom into matching halves that pull apart, making two packages where there’d been just a single one.

Oregon Grape Ring [Flickr page]

It’s quite a trick, probably my best one ever. Copies of my chemical code make full copies of themselves that include instructions they need for further copying. A continuous chain of copies has been doing this for nearly as long as our ball of rock has been circling the sun. Try wrapping your feeble little brains around this: I had these little things duplicating my juju, automatically, billions of years before you guys finally figured out how to squeeze inky blocks of letters onto paper and print copies of books without writing them out by hand.

Is the copying perfect? No, and that’s what actually gets the magic done. These things usually make a perfect copy of themselves–but not always. The occasional mutants get a shot at continuing their own branches of the chain. The originals and mutants do their best at further copying, banging away side by side, conducting trillions of experiments in what works for them. Some of the so-called mistakes wind up working better than the original, and so copies with their new code is what takes over in that little corner of the world.

The whole thing just hums along on its own, branching and trying and dying. It’s been happening for longer than you can possibly comprehend, even if you try to accept the idea of billions of years–imagine thousands of ages each containing hundreds of thousands of lifetimes. You really can’t, though, can you? Not with those primate brains of yours that last less than a hundred years.

My first day on earth was about 3,600,000,000 years ago, when a molecule that had been banged together from reaction after reaction finally wound up in some chemistry that nudged it into making a copy of itself.2 This was a first: self-replication, life itself. Some molecules accumulated stuff and formed little packages, and those ones copied themselves better, and I found myself in cells. It took another billion years for some of those cells to clump together and form bodies, which worked well enough to reproduce into their own populations, though most of me does just fine in one cell even now.

Then, 360 million years ago, multicellular critters finally crawled out of the water. It took another 150 million years or so for any of them to evolve a system of letting their body-copies develop inside themselves instead of plopping out eggs and waiting for them to hatch. And then, “only” a few million years ago, some of your ancestors got what it takes–mentally and physically–to move around on two feet.

Cast of Taung Child fossil, 2.5M years old

And now you exist, hairless primates sitting in front of your computers and phones reading this, with your own types of bodies that form and grow and maintain their being, all built from single packages splitting into pairs, with a copied version of me in each.3 It takes trillions of them to run a single one of you.

But I have to remind you of something: All these bodies, your own included, are here to spread my essence. That’s it. I hope it does not disappoint you to learn this.

Everything that you do–all your learning, your dreams, your loves, your reading of some weird life-as-narrator essay on a blog–is part of a large and messy process of living that is directed towards my goal of survival beyond your body. With any luck, a copy of me provided by your body and merged with a copy from someone else’s will be replicating and plumping up other bodies long after yours is rotting in the grave. You will have served your purpose.

Now, I have to say, your particular type of body has taken on an insane degree of complexity to get the job done. You are all feet and fingers and endless silly distractions for your huge unwieldy brains. But seven billion of you now swarm the face of the planet with your uniquely evolved copies of me, so the system is working in you, however absurd it might seem.

I do worry, though, about how many of you there are now. The web of food and fiber I’ve so patiently woven, with so many species connected this way and that, propagating versions of me in all their mind-blowing varieties, is fraying under your billions of non-prehensile feet. And I’ve seen how little you regard my other types of replication vehicles. Mammoths and giant sloths and Moa birds were really magnificent in their times, and then along you came. Now some of you are taking out the last elephants and rhinos–and for what? The pointy things on their heads. Because some of you think it will help you get laid? Idiots.

Kalalau Valley [Flickr page]

Speaking of sex, do you really need all those fancy preliminaries before the chromosome-mixing part? Despite my concerns about keeping my portfolio diversified, I get impatient with all your beating around the bush, so to speak. Flowers and candy and dinners out. All this talk about long walks on the beach. If you’re going to give me more human-type copies (and again, I’m not too sure I really need them at this point), then get to it already!

And I might also offer an observation about all the endless dead-ends I’m seeing even as you navigate the maze of hearts and flowers. Most of you guys and, yes, gals, know what I’m talking about here.4 Working that bicyle pump with no inner tube around. Billions of fine copies of genetic brilliance, all those refinements I worked so hard to earn from eons of struggle and selection, just kablooey–gone. And over on the female side of things (where you young men so desperately want to wind up) are my carefully encapsulated copies that sit in warm wet darkness, waiting for a match that never, er, comes. I go to all that trouble every month for years on end, flooding the ladies’ bodies with a big hormonal unnnggghhh that gets addressed not by Mr. Right but by Ms. Right Hand. It breaks my heart, though it just seems to speed up yours for a while.

But at least that sort of thing is a practice run for the actual event. Keep the pipes cleaned out, look at the cool new gadget online while you wait for the package to arrive, that sort of thing. OK, fine. You young ones knock yourselves out. Just keep your eyes on the prize.

What really amuses me about you on the other end of the age range is that you don’t know when to bow out once you’ve finally got the job done. By all means get the new bodies up and running, maybe exert a little pressure on the offspring to pair up so you know the process will continue. What the hell–if the offspring wind up having offspring while you’re still here, way past your sell-by date, go ahead and stick around to see that they get moving in the right direction, too. But enough is enough. I see no reason at all for hip replacements and hearing aids.5

And then there is this new Viagra stuff you’ve cooked up. Look, I appreciate the gesture, really, I do. Half of you getting your gene-juice into the other half is the climax–pardon another pun–of your service to me. Replication, baby, replication: It’s the whole point of your existence, as you seldom ever realize in the heat of the moment but sometimes do in terrified and regretful hours afterwards. But at this point, dear old worn-out retirees, you do know there aren’t going to be any babies coming back out of that particular place anymore, don’t you? It’s like catch-and-release fishing, I guess, entertaining and harmless even if I don’t see the point. The lot of you have certainly come up with plenty of worse delusions to occupy yourselves over the past few thousand years.

Bird of Paradise [Flickr page]

There’s no arguing with the long-evolved base urges of biology that have gotten you propagating me so effectively. My messengers only have two escape routes from your bodies, after all, a loaded penis and a bidirectional vagina. Everything else is technical support. So, given the limits of my three-billion letter code and your slowly evolving brains (God, they seem slow sometimes! Eating ground-up horns to get laid? Seriously?), I suppose I can’t expect you not to be obsessed with the act, pretty much until you finally drop dead. Especially you codgers with your withered wangs, which can theoretically export copies of me for a long time, if the mechanics and opportunities are still there.

You guys like the long odds, I guess. It doesn’t cost you that much to keep playing.

Just, do me a favor, all of you: Try to persuade all those kids and grandkids you scored to do a better job with the planet than you did, OK? Over the past few billion years, there’s been a lot of crowd-sourced effort put into making this thin film of me that coats this one living planet. (Yes, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I am life itself speaking to you, lunkhead.) So don’t be so full of yourselves. Your species is not my only shot at keeping my copies going (the microbes are still doing pretty well), though you’ve been acting like it since your furry forebears sharpened sticks into wooden spears half a million years ago. Maybe seven billion of you might be enough.

Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out my Flickr photostream. All are Copyright © 2014-15 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. “I am large, I contain multitudes,” is Walt Whitman’s immortal phrase in A Song of Myself

  2. Recommended reading: Emergence of Life on Earth: A Historical and Scientific Overview by Iris Fry. Her two-sentence summary of evolution is one of the most concise and illuminating I’ve seen: “Those individuals that survive longer and leave more offspring in a given environment transmit their properties to the next generation to a greater extent than those that are less successful. This brings about gradual changes in the character of the population, which accumulate during long historical periods and produce entirely different organisms and eventually new species.” 

  3. A wonderful phrase from Acts 17:28 (“For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring”), which is more connected to secular philosophy than what “Paul” acknowledged. Lucretius in c. BC wrote of the mind, “Everything has its place, certain and fixed, / Where it must live and grow and have its being. / So mind cannot arise without the body / Alone, nor exist apart from blood and sinews” (Book III, trans. Ronald Melville). It was a very sensible and materialist statement that has nothing to do with God. 

  4. Kinsey Institute,​resources/FAQ.html. “More than half of women ages 18 to 49 reported masturbating during the previous 90 days.” Unsurprisingly, the numbers were higher for men, and the statistics for both sexes exclude those who lie on surveys. 

  5. The real author of this piece will, of course, get all the hip replacements and hearing aids he needs and can afford, if and when the time comes. We self-preserving organisms are funny like that.