Saturday, December 10, 2011

Symbiosis - Sermon by Painting

This painting is a sermon.  It’s the foundation and basis for how I think about morality, how I struggle to live and essentially my worldview.  Captured best by the Bible quote, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” symbiosis, or the living together of two different organisms, provides tangible evidence of sorts that cooperation works.  In fact, put better, that cooperation out competes competition.  Far from nature being a ruthless typification of, “Red in tooth and claw,”  these six panels highlight the generosity and love woven throughout life. Explanation of the six panels provided below (from left to right starting with the top row):  

1. Gaia (the Greek goddess of the Earth) is the idea of thinking of the Earth as one massive self-regulating, cybernetic organism.  This idea is also combined with a concept that life promotes life.  E.g., a tree existing in a field makes it possible for squirrels to live in its branches, eat its nuts, birds to nest in it, wasps to pollinate its flowers, the shade provides a moist microclimate for fungi and other plants, etc.  Life promotes life.  Because the tree exists a multitude of life is possible.  The other classic example from the book Gaia by James Lovelock is our atmosphere.  Because life has come before us our atmosphere now is composed of 21% oxygen (a by-product of photosynthesis), 78% nitrogen (a bacterial byproduct) and .0039% carbon dioxide (removed from the atmosphere by photosynthesis).  Without life having proceeded us to make a hospitable atmosphere we'd have a very, very similar atmosphere to our nearest neighbor Mars--95% carbon dioxide (runaway greenhouse).  Life has made our life possible--Gaia.

2. The second panel is about endosymbiosis, which is the concept that the mitochondria within our bodies, who essentially power our body by the production of ATP, are former bacteria.  This should truly hit you if it hasn’t before--the best science out there says that you aren’t one organism.   You’re the combination of at least two different critters that have become so mutually dependant for the last 2 billion years or so that we’re inseparable now.  Evidence for this can be seen that mitochondria has its own set of DNA (a plasmid just like bacteria, which is very important for phylogenetics), that they divide just like bacteria (which is why it’s important for genetics; it passes uncombined with another sex cell from the mother’s egg cell.  Meaning you only have your mother’s mitochondria, not your father’s.), they have peptidoglycan cell walls like bacteria and so on and so forth--basically they are *just* like a bacteria.  Billions of years ago an anaerobic bacteria (“us”) combined with a aerobic bacteria (our mitchondria) to create a cell that could survive in either condition.  We teamed our forces and made all complex life, including us, possible.  Go cooperation!

3. The next panel highlights how we’re a host for bacteria.  I’ve seen vastly varying numbers, but one source said that humans are generally composed of somewhere around 10 trillion cells.  Guess how many bacteria cells you have on and in your body?  Around 100 trillion!!  So, not only are you the combination of at least two different bacteria, but by cell count you are 10 times more actual bacteria than human!!!  Why?  Because that bacteria, generally speaking, majorly benefits us by breaking down organic matter that our body isn't good at breaking up--you can thank bacteria for helping digest carbs, proteins and fats as well as producing essential vitamins like vitamin K and many B vitamins.  We depend on trillions of other organisms just to eat.

4. Maybe around a billion years ago life had a great idea.  Let’s not just cooperate in energy production (endosymbiosis) and structure/division of labor (multicellularity) but also genetically--thus sex was born.  By combining genes the best of one organisms genes can be put with the  best of another’s.  Contrast that with bacteria that mostly evolve through random mutation--which is more often than not quite deleterious.  We sexually reproducing organisms survive and evolve by teamwork.  We pool the best of what we have and create something even better--synergy.

5. The 5th panel highlights the interconnection of our foods--the substances that make our survival possible.  Plants cooperate with bugs to transport their DNA to reproduce in exchange for a tasty, nutritious treat of pollen/nectar.  That’s why flowers exist.  Their beauty is a physical display and celebration of cooperation.  The same is true for fruit. Fruit exists to give nutrition in exchange for seed dispersal.  

6. The final panel focuses on the love of a mother and child.  From a biological perspective that mother needs the child to pass on her DNA and the child needs the mother for nutrition and socially relevant information for future reproduction and survival.  From an experiential perspective the two experience a level and power of connection and love unrivaled in the universe.

The Bible speaks truth--it is more blessed to give than to receive.  Why?  Because it works.  The winnowing pragmatism of evolution proves it.  If we try and live our lives in defiance of this truth we only hurt ourselves.  Cooperation out competes competition.  We ought to make this the basis of every relationship, government, family, economic system.  It works.  To paraphrase Ben Franklin, we shall hang together or surely we shall hang apart.

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