Monday, February 1, 2010

Symbiosis and Spirituality--Moral Narrative--A Brief History of Life

As in my previous blog, I’d like to elaborate on the first idea that religion teaches morality through narrative and apply that template to the example of symbiosis and see if any helpful moral lesson might emerge.

Premise: the history of life shows cooperation works.

In grade school did you ever have the depressing realization that most of history is a cataloging of wars and death?  Well, contrary to popular opinion, nature is actually a superb example of peace, tranquility and cooperation.  Yes, there is competition and “war” on the micro level, like between that of a lion and an impala, but on the macro level it has always been cooperation (necessarily so to avoid collapse).  The following will be a history of the cooperation of life, with the intent of teaching morality from the Utilitarian perspective of morality as espoused by Jeremy Bentham.  E,i., cooperation works, it causes the greatest amount of good, therefore do it.  More on that to come.

4 Billion years ago—Our Cenancestor
The first life was a community of gene exchanging organisms cooperatively working on the recipe that was to become the first self-replicating life.

3.5-2.0 billion years ago—Endosymbiosis
Lynn Margulis, a visionary biologist was one of the first to vanguard the idea that the organelles within eukaryotic cells were formerly other bacteria like organisms.  This can be readily seen in both the structural simililarity, method of replication, their ring of DNA, cellular machinery and even a sensitivity to certain antibiotics.  Also known as endosymbios, this could have first developed by aerobic and anaerobic life ganging up together to produce an all-in-one cell that could have its oxygen loving portion in operation while in the presence of oxygen and then vice versa in its absence.  This would have been quite an advantage as the atmospheric oxygen levels rose from trace to several percentage points of the atmosphere.
PARADIGM SHIFT—you aren’t a ‘human’ you are a host of like a dozen different organisms working together

3.5-2.0 bya—Gaian Ecosystem
Take in a deep cleansing breath.  Now realize what you just breathed in—the farts of bacteria over the last several billion years.  Did you know that our atmosphere is nothing like it was when earth was a “baby”?  If it weren’t for life we’d have an atmosphere like Mars—98% carbon dioxide and trace oxygen and nitrogen.  In fact, that’s one of the major ways that we can tell that there probably isn’t life on Mars—there’s no atmospheric evidence whatsoever. 
James Lovelock brought for the Gaian hypothesis which basically states that life fosters more life.  At the beginning our atmposphere was  98% Carbon dioxide (and we’re worried about 35 parts per million) and now after several billion years of life we’ve produced are near optimum balance of oxygen (21&--not too much to be overly oxidizing , mutating and conflagrating and not too little to not allow cellular respiration and anemia), and Nitrogen (78%--a marvelously inert, stable and nonreactive medium) producing just the right Goldie Locks balance. 

1.5 billion years ago-- Multicellular Life
Further refines the idea of working as a team of specialists.  

600  mya—Sexual Reproduction
Organisms cooperated and exchanged DNA thus spawning sexual reproduction as a means to quickly and safely evolve.  Think of it.  What was the main means of evolving to a changing environment prior to sexual reproduction?  Mutation!  Which, by the way, is a kind of crappy way of evolving.  The only reason that they can make up for this random, typically deleterious form of evolution is that they make up for  it in sheer mass of offspring (perhaps you’ve seen the videos of bacteria dividing until they fill up the screen). Furthermore a “bank” of genes was later developed in the concept of recessive genes, which have the advantage of storing a host of evolutionary potentialities in them that can manifest themselves as necessary to adapt to the changing environment.  Please appreciate and realize the magnitude of this change.  There’s no way in hell we’d be possible (or even any advanced life/evolution) with this innovation and cooperation of genes.

450 mya?—Digestion Symbiosis
Simple animals with the first digestive tracts co-evolve with bacteria (and later fungi) to digest food more completely. 
2ND PARADIGM SHIFT--While I’ve found a number of estimations, it’s likely that our bodies have roughly 10 trillion cells within them.  Ready for a shocker?  How many bacteria cells do you think that you have in and on your body?  Possibly upwards of 100 trillion bacteria cells.  Let me point out the obvious, you are more bacteria than you are human!!!  Not in weight and not in mass, but in simply nose-count  you are more bacteria than human!!!

450 mya-- Plants
Plants colonize the land possibly by the symbiosis of fungi (structure) and cyanobacteria (food production).  Don’t miss this.  This is huge.  Land couldn’t have been colonized without plants.  There was essentially no life on land for 3.5 billion years.  It was a strictly aquatic phenomenon.  Then two forms of life teamed up and stormed in land.  Without plants there could have been no herbivores, predators, forests, grasslands, etc.  Huge revolution made possible, once again, by cooperation.

200mya?—Mammary Glands
It’s a form of symbiosis between a mother and child.  The child offers a way to pass on the mother's DNA and the mother offers milk.  Btw, ever thought about how boobies evolved?  I mean, weird question, right?  Think about it, other animals don’t have them.  There aren’t reptile or bird knockers in existence.  So, how did they evolve?  The short answer is they used to be sweat glands.  Example—the platypus.  In addition to being a marvelous freak of nature the platypus also exhibits a number of wonderfully ancient attributes, like laying eggs and demonstrating an evolutionary intermediary between sweat gland and mammary gland.  The don’t have teats—the sweat the milk and the baby simply licks the mother’s chest.  How messed up is that?

140 mya-- Flowering Plants
Did you know that flowering plants evolved after the advent of the dinosaurs?  They evolved symbiotically using insects as pollinators and animals as seed distributors.  There success can be seen in how they now outnumber ferns and conifers 20 to 1.  Don’t underestimate the ripple effects of this.  If there were no flowering plants, then there would be no fruit (at least like we think of it), then in addition to being no butterflies, honey bees, cotton, roses, orchids, there would be no us, our primate ancestors frugivores.

?-- The origin of hominid spoken language
Major symbiosis advancement.  We’ve succeed as a species because our ability to cooperatively stack our knowledge.  Example: we know how to build computers because we learned how to build machines to make them because we learned how to do metallurgy because we learned how to make fire, etc.  Our knowledge can build on each other’s through communication.

2m-25,000 ya?-- Allo parenting
In order to have large brains we needed to have small bodies as babies (lack of space/maternal resources).  This disproportionate head to body size made us feeble and incapable to take care of ourselves as infants.  Contrast our species with that of the wildebeest.  If the wildebeest baby can’t immediately stand and be able to move with the herd then it will be abandoned and left to the predators.  My brother just had a baby and it can’t even roll over or life its head, let alone walk!  It will be another year before that!  So, in order to compensate for this brain advantage and subsequent body disadvantage we have developed some highly specialized forms of care for our young.  Allo (Greek for ‘other’) parenting describes how the job of food gathering and distribution is a communal effort within a tribe and is no longer the sole responsibility of the direct parents.  It’s too great a task for one person in the wild.  It really does take a village to feed our young growing brains.  Please appreciate our costly our brains are—a chess Grandmaster can burn 6-7k cal a day just by thinking (says Robert Sapolsky).

10k ya?-- Symbiotic agriculture invented

9k ya-- First animals symbiotically domesticated

+6k ya-- First city-states created giving structure and stability through cooperation--taxes, army, judicial system, police, fire department, etc.  This is a highly advanced form of symbiosis.

+5k ya-- First written language invented to ease trade between persons and states--exchanged information accurately over distance and time.  Monumental advancement in informational symbiosis.

Summary: in the words of the Jesus, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."  

In the words of Stephen Covey, the math of synergy (or in this case symbiosis) isn't one plus one equals two.  It's one plus one equals three.  The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, "We must hang together, gentlemen...else, we shall most assuredly hang separately."

In the words of Lee Walton, "Cooperation out competes competition."

The history of evolution has taught us that it isn't just dog eat dog, kill or be killed, out compete, out cheat, out smart others.

It's I need you.

And you need me.

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