The Wonder of Life

Chris Maser

Before time as we think of it, the Universe was naught. Then, says current scientific thought, arose a great cataclysm, the "big bang," which created a supremely harmonious and logical process as a foundation of matter, and the Universe was born. So began the process of evolution, which proceeds from the simple to the complex, from the general to the specific, and from the strongly bonded to the more weakly bonded.

To understand the relative strength of evolutionary bonds, consider an extended family. The strongest bond is between a husband and wife, then between the parents and their children. But as the family grows, the bonds between the children and the various aunts and uncles and their first, second, and third cousins become progressively weaker as relationships become more distant with the increasing size of the family.

To understand the creation of the Universe, it's necessary to examine its basic building blocks and the way they evolved into organized systems. The big bang created particles of an extremely high state of concentration, which were bonded together by almost unimaginably strong forces. From these original micro-units, quarks and electrons were formed. (Scientists propose quarks as the fundamental units of matter.) Quarks combined to form protons and neutrons; protons and neutrons formed atomic nuclei, which were complemented by shells of electrons. Atoms of various weights and complexities could, in some parts of the Universe, combine into chains of molecules and, on suitable planetary surfaces, give birth to life. On Earth, for example, living organisms became ecological systems and human societies with the remarkable features of language, consciousness, free choice (and its attendant consequences), and culture.

In this giant process, relationships among things are continually changing as complex systems rise from subatomic and atomic particles. With each higher level of complexity and organization, there is an increase in the size of the system and a corresponding decrease in the energies holding it together. Thus, the forces that hold together the evolving systems weaken as the size of the systems increases―from a molecule to a human society—all of which are dependant on the availability of energy.

Earth has been exposed for billions of years to a constant flow of energy streaming from the sun and radiating back into space. On Earth, the flow of energy produces the vast variety of living systems from the simple, such as an individual cell, to the complex, such as a human society. Each system uses the sun's energy to fuel its internal processes, and each in turn provides fuel to others.

During its formation, every system must develop the ability to constantly balance the energy it uses to function with the energies available in its environment. Ecosystems and social systems, like organisms, constantly bring in, break down, and use energy for regeneration and to adapt to changing environmental conditions. And part of this balancing act is the dissipation of excess energy, that which is beyond the capacity of a system to use.

Keep in mind that we live in a world where everything seems to have its exact opposite, such as love/hate, black/white, life/death. So the relationship of cause and effect seems also to be one of opposites. Consider that the first relationship between two things, whatever gave birth to cause, also gave birth to effect. But rather than being discrete opposites, cause and effect are part of a process of both creation and extinction— extinction and creation.

Creation was the initial cause of extinction when the world was formed, and since that instant, extinction has been the continual cause of creation. Thus, in effect, the act of creation also becomes the act of extinction, and the act of extinction becomes the act of creation, as Marcus Aurelius intimated when he wrote:  "Time is a . . . river of passing events, and strong is its current. No sooner is a thing brought to sight then it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away." This river of passing events, of cause and effect, of creation and extinction, is the continual, fluid motion of change, which gives rise to diversity. So change, which includes both creation and extinction, is the basis of the world around us. As such, change is the catalyst of diversity.

Diversity is not only the quality of being different but also the richness of the world and our experience of it. Diversity comes in many forms, each of which is a relationship that fits precisely into every other relationship in the Universe and is constantly changing.

Nature crafted the world inherited by human beings through the principle of cause and effect, which gave rise to the diversity of nonliving matter. When the first living cell came into being, diversity not only became limitless but also gave rise to the possibility of the extinction of life.

We are losing the diversity of life (biodiversity) worldwide. So we need to have some notion of diversity itself, because biodiversity is in many ways the cumulative effect of diversity in all its various dimensions. How can we understand and describe diversity? We can do so by realizing that diversity is partly a matter of dimension.

Dimension is, in a general sense, a measure of spatial extent, such as height, width, or length. It also is a physical property, such as mass, a temporal property (which we think of as time), or some combination of these characteristics. Speed, for example, has the dimensions of length divided by time.

We also see diversity in scale, from the infinitesimal through the electron microscope to the infinity of space. The dimension of scale is important, because it adds greatly not only to our perception of diversity in the landscape but also to our perception of the way one part of the landscape relates to another. And both perceptions are necessary for us to make the wisest decisions concerning the best use of such things as our backyard gardens, our national forests, and the world's oceans.

Scale is a progressive classification in size, amount, importance, rank, or even a relative level or degree. When dealing with diversity, however, we often overlook space or distance as oone of its dimension because we take them for granted in our everyday lives.

Space and distance, as a scale of diversity, are right in our own backyard—and always has been. If, for example, you took a high-powered microscope and studied a pinch of soil, you would see things that you never imagined to be living in your backyard, but you cannot see the roses or even your house so long as you focus your attention into the microscope.

Now, if you were to use a ten-power hand lens to look at the same pinch of soil, you could not see what you saw through the microscope, but you would see more of the way the particles of soil and some of the larger soil organisms relate one to another. But as long as you're looking through the hand lens, you still couldn't see the roses or your house.

On the other hand, if you put the pinch of soil back where you got it from, stand up straight, and look down, you have still a different scale of diversity. Now you see a wider patch of soil, but without the detail. If you climb onto the roof of your house and look down on the patch of soil, you now see even less detail of the soil, but you see the roses growing out of the soil, and you see your house. Imagine, therefore, what you would see if you hovered in a helicopter a hundred feet, a thousand feet, or ten thousand feet above the patch of soil in your backyard. What would you see from a satellite in outer space?

Let's look for a moment at the scale of distance and space in still another way. What would you see in your backyard if you were a microorganism peeking out of the soil from under a grain of sand? What would you see in your backyard if you were an ant, a mouse, a cat, or a dog? Then again, what would you see if you were a sparrow, first feeding on the ground and then suddenly flying into the tree and then just as suddenly flying to the other end of the neighborhood?

Scale, as we perceive it, is an aspect of diversity in distance and space. Diversity, however, includes of every conceivable scale, such as time, viewed from every conceivable place in distance and space simultaneously, from the viewpoint of the ant to the viewpoint of the sparrow and beyond. What you perceive your backyard to be today is only an instant in an ever-expanding explosion of diversity, one aspect of which is time—our invisible creation wherein we are stuck.

The clock runs our society, so we try to manage our landscapes by that measure. In dealing with our renewable natural resources, for example, we try to rush Nature's processes, because to us time is money. To Nature, however, both time and money are nonexistent. We must therefore learn to accept that Nature will never bow to society's clock.

In our culture, we often think of time as a non-spatial continuum in which events occur in an apparent sequence from the past through the present into the future. Time is also thought of as an interval separating two points on this continuum, points we select based on what seems to be a regularly recurring event, such as the sunrise, and counting the number of its occurrences during the interval. And time is represented as numbers:  seconds, minutes, days, weeks, months, years, centuries, millennia, or geological epochs.

In the dimension of time, your backyard may once have been the bottom of an ancient ocean or of an ice-age lake. Or it could have been a mountaintop, a tropical forest, tundra, or a desert. And it could have been all of these things.

Consider a simple example, the backyard of my home when I lived in a small town in northeastern Oregon. Behind my house I had a vegetable garden, which I used to rototill every spring. And just as soon as I was finished rototilling the soil I began picking up squarish nails and clinkers from coal that someone had burned in a forge to heat and shape mule shoes and horseshoes. Why? Because, where I located up my garden, a blacksmith shop had stood a hundred years earlier.

The acre of ground I used for a garden in 1978 was the same physical acre a hundred years earlier, but the diversity of materials in the soil of that acre was very different from that of my neighbors on either side, both of whom had gardens but neither of whom found any of the artifacts that I did. And today, for all I know, that acre of ground, where I grew my garden, could have a garage built on it. So, if we add the dimension of time to all the other forms of diversity, we learn that diversity is really infinite. It's something we cannot define. We can only crudely and imperfectly characterize it, and yet, the most wonderful diversity of all lies in life itself.

Just imagine:  since that first living cell, nothing has ever again been alone on Earth, because the diversity of life has literally filled the planet. And the experiment continues.

How exactly that part of Creation called life began is a question as old as the first human to wonder about it. Nevertheless, the first animated cell opened up not only the possibility of life and living diversity but also a whole dimension of diversity beyond our present comprehension—infinite diversity, created out of nonliving substances and living tissue, as well as a combination of the living with the nonliving. As an example, think of the vast array of marine snails, each of which makes its own peculiar shell out of nonliving materials, and yet without the living snail the shells could not exist.

The wonder of biological diversity is the wonder of its having begun with a single living cell, or maybe even a handful of cells scattered throughout the seas of the world. From that cell, or perhaps those cells, arose the longest-known living experiment on Earth—the genetic experiment of life.

You could argue that combinations of genetic materials are really no different from the original combinations of chemicals that gave rise to chemical compounds. If you omit the spark of life from this equation, you'd be right. But that undefinable spark of life is there, and that changes everything.

Today, therefore, as I meet each living thing that shares the world with me, I see the pinnacle—the culmination—of billions upon billions upon billions of genetic experiments, all of which have taken place over millions of years, all embodied in each butterfly, each rose, each tree, each bird, and each human being. Every individual living thing on Earth is the apex of Creation, because every living thing is the result of an unbroken chain of genetic experiments—each individual that ever lived being part of a single experiment—that began with the original, living cell that filled the sea with life.

This essay is based on my 1992 book, "Global Imperative:  Harmonizing Culture and Nature."

©chris maser 2007. All rights reserved.

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