SERMON: “The Microbe that Roared” by the not-so-reverend bob

Once upon a time there was a living organism that (after eons of evolution and natural selection) achieved a level of consciousness that brought with it the ability to both observe and contemplate her world.  So this organism began to consider her environment: the mountains and valleys over which she traveled, the sky above, the air she breathed, the ground beneath her feet.

With others of her kind, she shared her observations and together they began to form an understanding of their own existence.  Though based, at first, on speculation and imagination, over time their ideas came to be rooted more and more in evidence uncovered through scientific means.

They developed theories about the origins of life based upon the leftovers of evolution around them.  They studied the organisms in their world that were similar (and different) from themselves for insights into their own behaviors, and from the evidence of their own past forms captured in their individual DNA they came to understand the ancestry that they shared with every other living thing.

They theorized, they experimented, they learned, and over time their knowledge began to increase at an ever accelerating pace, with each new discovery opening doors to more and more research.  Through their knowledge and technology, their population began to explode: they lived longer, they lived healthier and they began to alter their environment to meet their needs.

Then one day the world they lived in seemed to change, as if there was a sickness upon the entire planet that they called home.  The scientific evidence suggested that it was the very reproductive and technical success of these curious organisms that was causing the sickness.  Others refused to believe it, and instead insisted it was part of a natural cycle that had happened before, and would happen again.  In the end, the world that they lived in (and which they relied upon for their life) became so sick and weak that the organisms themselves began to die as their environment changed, forcing millions of them to uproot themselves and look for healthier environments to live.

The organism I’m imaging for this allegory this could be any one of the 90 trillion or so microbes with which we share our bodies, and their world (that they had struggled so diligently to comprehend) a single living human host who was made ill by a proliferation of deleterious microscopic flora.

The obvious analogy I draw is to us humans who have blossomed in such a short time into a global population of incredible technical and mental power but who, at the same time (hindered in no small part by the limitations of our evolved mammalian brain — see this week’s book review) have managed to put into motion two parallel runaway trains: one running toward an exciting future of scientific progress and the other toward a global climate (and resource) crisis that could easily make our pleasant lives here much less pleasant and even doubtful.

Where and when these “trains” are to intersect is up for debate.  I’m afraid I tend toward a concern that such a collision is inevitable at some point.  (After all, based on the evidence of history, even if we dodge this particular bullet there will inevitably be another).

The question that most immediately concerns me is of two parts: 1) are we racing toward a global event that will happen in my own lifetime and, 2) is there really anything that we humans can do about it — at this point?

Because, in a lot of ways, we are the microbes looking out at the world.  Our planet is physically enormous compared to our own (relatively) tiny size, and beyond us is a vast universe that is barely comprehensible in scale.  No less difficult to comprehend is the microbial ecosystem that we carry with us every day and night.

The crux of my worry is that our natural human tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe is both blinding us to the fragility of the band of life we occupy on this planet and exaggerating our actual power to forestall the forces of climate change that we have managed to nudge into motion.

That is where the book I’ve reviewed this week (“Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus) is both helpful and disturbing, as it reveals the many clunky ways in which the evolved human mind works.  Though we humans are capable of reasonable and rational thought, we are still very much the primal animal that has to work at sorting the wheat from the chaff in terms of evidence and belief.  And, frankly, I don’t think enough people are working hard enough at it!

To be clear, to me the question of whether or not I “believe” that this round of climate change has been caused by we humans (I tend to accept the science, of course) may be moot, as there seems to be a reality unfolding that should make even those who claim  it’s a “perfectly natural” fluctuation in climate shit in their pants.  (Species extinction is also perfectly natural, for that matter).

But I’m just one microbe tossing out his opinion about an ecosystem that is vast and complex, and hence my two-cents worth may be worth just about that much in the grand scheme of things.  One thing, however, is for sure: we will soon enough find out how good modern scientists are at predicting global trends, and probably in the lifetime of many of us.

We live in interesting times, to be sure.  And yet, no matter how hard I try, I can only see so much of it, and my glimpse is incredibly brief when measured against the march of time that we now know (through science) came before we humans were even here.

We are the clever, lucky microbes who get to be the ones to watch it all unfold.  With a handful of other sentient creatures, we can think about our lives as they happen, and we can choose to live them in the best way we can.

Funny how no matter how vast life really is, the living of it will always be local, and personal.  Whether we be microbe or human being.

t.n.s.r. bob

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