Sunday, January 16, 2005
Life is like a lichen
Most of us think that lichens are, well rather boring. I am sure that unless you are or have done a graduate dissertation on them, they probably are. Instead I think I will try to liken them to our existence. Well, that’s not quite right. Perhaps instead I will read some things unto you which are written in the books of Bill Byson, and then do the, well you know the pun.
Lichens [are] more interesting than magical. They are in fact a partnership between fungi and algae. The fungi excrete acids that dissolve the surface of the rock, freeing minerals that the algae convert into food sufficient to sustain both. It is not a very exciting arrangement, but it is a conspicuously successful one. The world has more than twenty thousand species of lichens.
But enough background information.
Like most things that thrive in harsh environments, lichens are slow growing. It may take a lichen more than half a century to attain the dimensions of a shirt button. Those the size of dinner plates, writes David Attenborough, are therefore “likely to be hundreds if not thousands of years old.” It would be hard to imagine a less fulfilling existence. “They simply exist,” Attenborough adds, “testifying to the moving fact that life even at its simplest level occurs, apparently, just for its own sake.”
It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of all the intoxicating existence we’ve been endowed with. But what’s life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours-arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don’t. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment’s additional existence. Life, in short, just wants to be. But-and here’s the an interesting point-for the most part it doesn’t want to be much.
I think it is in our natures to assume that life leads to a naturally fulfilling existence. The usual Mormon rationale is that life of every kind has a purpose. Everything was, more or less, specifically created to help us return to God’s presence (or at least had a role to play in that journey). While I certainly won’t disagree with that view, I wonder if there isn’t more than one paradigm that incorporates the motivations for the preceding train thought?
Perhaps another quote from Bryerson will help to start things out.
There is one other extremely pertinent quality about life on Earth: it goes extinct. Quite regularly. For all the trouble they take to assemble and preserve themselves, species crumple and dire remarkably routinely. And the more complex they get, the more quickly the appear to go extinct. Which is perhaps one reason why so much of life isn’t terribly ambitious.”
On a long time scale, complex life is unstable. The more exotic a species is, the more likely it is to go extinct. We can see it today. Plants or animals that become adapted to a very special niche lose out because conditions, and hence the niche, continually change. However, I wonder if many of our goals for this life are setting us up for existence in a specialized rather than generalized niche?
Perhpas the undermat of this idea comes from power ascribed to God’s protective canopy. In these terms, our existence is like an epiphyte. The only difference is that the world is a niche that doesn’t quite fit our spiritual side. It is as if there is evolutionary pressure forcing us into extinction. In effect, some viewpoints can be seen as supporting a spiritual reliance on God that enables us to survive in a niche that doesn’t fit. Under these conditions, many people continue to specialize.
Some may run with specific doctrinal ideologies. They set themselves up for a life that is continually at odds with the natural world around them. By doing this, they force more and more action from God to sustain them. In this way they may feel that they are making God more a part of their life. Now obviously, reliance on God is not a bad thing. It is much better to rely on him than on ourselves. However, what if our existence on earth is meant to be more harmonic than confrontational?
From this perspective, many miraculous things, like the origin of life, may be seen as a wise use of available resources rather than the heavy hand of conventional creation. Find a stable planet at the right conditions and bingo, amino acids, then proteins., etc. What if our move from spiritual to temporal being is part of a long process that takes advantage of situations that are naturally available within our realm of existence? In this sense, part of creation may involve finding and taking advantage of natural events that presumably spring up millions of times within our galaxy. In these terms many of the lessons we should be learning may not be how to force our environment into a mold that we like, instead, it may involve learning how to deal with the type of mold that we may find.
Posted by chris g at 2:01 PM