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I’m in familiar territory, doing something I’ve done countless times before, when I’m overtaken by a sense of plummeting descent. It’s as if, unnoticed, right beside me, an abyss has opened up. It feels like I’ve stepped into it, quite oblivious, thinking it was just a continuation of the commonplace. When what I thought was solid ground opened without warning into unexpected space, I felt the shock of ambush. Despite the acceleration of falling, it’s an abyss so deep that I have time to look around and get my bearings, examine what’s rushing towards me from the depths.
Although such a sudden, vertiginous drop sounds perilous, in fact I’m safe enough. I’m being held, cradled by a rope that’s wound around me and being paid out smoothly, length by length, with no indication it will ever be exhausted; it’s threaded to a spool that’s always replenished, that never seems to end. My sense of uncontrolled falling is only an illusion created by the sheer distance that I’ve covered in so short a time, the incredible depth I’ve got to when, only moments ago, I was standing on the surface of the everyday, enmeshed in time’s usual minute-by-minute unfolding. Far from being in a doomed freefall towards death, I’m being lowered carefully. And I’m a willing partner in this jaw-dropping descent. I gladly let the rope be wound around me. There was no capture, no coercion; no push over the edge. This was a venture I embarked on of my own volition. However unnerving its destinations, this was a journey I was eager to make. In any case, I know I can return from it in an instant if I cast off the rope, or exchange it for one of many others that lie coiled within easy reach.
I’m searching for a way to picture and explore something I’m so used to doing it’s acquired an aura of invisibility. It’s one of those ordinary – but really far from ordinary – accustomed things that’s hidden in plain sight. I want to find an image that will arrest the mind, stop it from slipping into the automatic pilot of routine naming, assumption, and dismissal. Things done on a daily basis can lose their lustre, become tarnished by repeated use, so that however shimmering with wonder their nature is, it becomes dulled, letting us dismiss as unremarkable what’s really quite the opposite. Imagining myself lowered into a seemingly bottomless abyss on a kind of magic rope provides a way of looking afresh at what’s so familiar there’s a risk of not seeing it properly; of not appreciating the amazing thing it is.
Is this the best way to begin? Perhaps it would be better to abandon confusing talk of abysses and ropes in favour of a literal description, something like: “This morning I’ve been shown the stomach of a termite.”
But stop there for a moment. We should not let past our guard “a literal description” without a body search of what it carries. Such locutions are expert at smuggling contraband across the borders of our notice, in this case the unexamined assumption of authority. Like other masquerades of virtuous accuracy – “the facts of the matter,” “the plain truth” – I suspect “a literal description” is rarely what it claims to be. Far from telling it like it is, rather than cutting cleanly to the heart of the matter and presenting it unadorned and rawly beating, such things are loyal to the codes of convention and convenience, which are rarely attuned to truthful apprehension. Such codes are closer kin to a kind of blindfolding, a simplification verging on obfuscation, than to anything that offers insight into the real nature of the things around us. It was precisely to avoid the blinkering of a literal description that I started with my image of falling into an abyss. But lest this image paints too puzzling a picture, let me give some background, state plainly what occasioned it, and why the unlikely-sounding circumstance of being shown a termite’s innards was such an awakening experience.
I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale. The subtitle he’s chosen describes the book as “A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life.” Even saying no more than this may create a strong current of distraction. To prevent it drawing attention away from the path I wish to follow, let me acknowledge that Dawkins’ name is often associated with the dispute between theists and atheists, but say at once that this is something that doesn’t concern me here. Whether the dawn of life was sparked by a creator deity, or, as Dawkins holds, by biochemical processes, is irrelevant to my purposes. I’ll adopt neither a theistic nor an atheistic position and offer no comment on either perspective.
Towards the end of his book, Dawkins focuses on Darwin’s termite (Mastotermes darwiniensis) in order to illustrate “the borrowing by greater creatures of the biochemical talents of lesser ones inside them.” These Australian termites rely on “a rich gut fauna of microbes” to produce the enzymes that enable them to digest the cellulose and lignin in the wood they eat – a task the termites cannot perform themselves. As Dawkins puts it, the microbes “have become tools” in the termites’ “biochemical toolkit.” Or, to put it in another way, Darwin’s termites “farm microorganisms in their gut” and depend on the harvests they create there as surely as we depend on the harvests of our agricultural systems. The microorganisms in their turn receive a safe environment and a regular supply of food.
Dawkins focuses on one microorganism in particular, Mixotricha paradoxa, “a large protozoan, half a millimetre long or more.” The gut of Darwin’s termite is the sole habitat this species of protozoan occupies; it is the only place on Earth they’re found. Just as the termites carry the unexpected cargo of Mixotricha paradoxa as an integral working part of their digestive system, so Mixotricha carries its own load of tiny essential life-forms. If you examine one, you’ll find it contains “hundreds of thousands of bacteria.” It depends on them for its survival just as much as the termites depend on Mixotricha. Some of these bacteria aid in the digestion of cellulose and lignin; others form tiny hairs that move together in such a coordinated manner that they provide their host protozoan with a means of propulsion via their synchronized movement.
In each termite’s stomach, therefore, there is what Dawkins calls “a triple-decker dependency.” The termites rely on microbes like Mixotricha to produce the enzymes they need to turn wood into a rich food source, whilst the Mixotricha in turn rely on their bacterial travelling companions for digestion and propulsion. In such cases, unsurprisingly, “it becomes quite tricky to draw the line between ‘own’ body and ‘alien’ body.”
The story of the “triple-decker dependency” in a termite’s stomach is amazing enough in itself. But what it points to is more amazing still. Namely the way in which, some two billion years ago, it’s thought the first eukaryote cells were formed. These are cells with a distinct nucleus that are larger and more complex than the simple, more ancient prokaryote cells which had been until then the only living things on this planet. The cellular revolution that birthed the eukaryotes happened when larger cells engulfed smaller ones and, in time, the smaller ones became organelles within the larger entity, in the manner of the termites and Mixotricha, and Mixotricha and its bacteria. Traces of this ancient symbiotic congress can be seen most clearly in chloroplasts and mitochondria, which contain small amounts of genetic material which is different from that of their hosts. Dawkins spells out the implications nicely:
All our cells are like individual Mixotrichs, stuffed with bacteria which have become so transformed by generations of cooperation with the host cell that their bacterial origins are almost lost to sight.
In other words, they have become part of us.
I find it astounding – a source of humbling wonderment – that the complex cellular life of which we are one expression began with this ancient process of engulfment and symbiosis, and that we still bear traces of it in the deep structure of our bodies. The mitochondria in our cells constitute a kind of evidential watermark. Written indelibly into every micro-page that’s bound together to make us there are subtle semaphore signals pointing back through the aeons to this fusing together; the revolutionary symbiosis that birthed us. Without it, life would not have unfolded in the manner that it has. “The sublime grandeur of the real world,” as Dawkins terms it, is truly awe-inspiring.
Given its grandeur, it’s understandable that delving into life’s ancient roots and contemporary manifestations can feel like plummeting into a vast abyss. In fact it would be odd not to feel the conceptual ground of the ordinary giving way beneath our feet when faced with a saga unfolding over billions of years and still echoing loudly in the cellular building blocks that make protozoans, termites, and humans. There are incredible storylines written in detailed, beautiful profusion on the walls of the abyss – that is, on the fabric of time and space that’s been colonized by life over such a stupendous period of years.
The Ancestor’s Tale ranges over a plethora of creatures in its exploration of how species come and go, continue and perish, as life flourishes on Earth. Fascinating though his subject is, what I want to focus on is not life’s origin and development but the means by which Dawkins documents it – the same means that anyone uses when they want to tell a story: language. It is language that constitutes the rope on which I’ve been lowered through the aeons into an insect’s innards. Without language I couldn’t have journeyed to the lives of all the other creatures that The Ancestor’s Tale examines.
The rope/language analogy first came to mind when I found myself taken into the gut of a Darwin’s termite and shown what was there. It was as if, through his expert diction, Dawkins had woven together a cord of words on which readers could be lowered into the depths he was exploring. Knotting sentences together, braiding them into paragraphs, pages, chapters, I came to picture The Ancestor’s Tale not as a thick book of 685 pages but as a strong rope of prose, down which I could slide into areas that would have been totally inaccessible to me without it.
Thinking of language as a rope provides a useful model by which to consider some of its functions. Like any model, it doesn’t fit what it models exactly – it would be useless if it did. Instead, the creative mismatch that it offers suggests various metaphorical lenses through which what language does comes into clearer focus.
We use language so regularly, it is so much a part of us, that it’s easy to forget how utterly remarkable it is. With very little effort, the sounds and shapes of words can be harnessed and made to carry incredible cargoes. Using only the 26 letters of the alphabet we can lasso any aspect of our experience and pull it towards the light of understanding. We can tie together disparate ideas to make new ones, rope together connections so that we’ve soon woven bridges across chasms of ignorance and incomprehension. We crack the whip of language and the world trots at its pace. Without the warp and weft of words I could not have led you here, nor could Dawkins have led me to the dawn of life. He in turn relied on the specialist discourse of scores of scientists talking to each other and recording their results. Language was the enabling factor for the portrait painted and shared in The Ancestor’s Tale. Thought’s propulsion relies on the cilia of ideas generated by scores of individuals, each rowing their coracle of understanding forward using the oars of words, each advance contributing to our progress.
Think of where language lets us go. Looking along the books on my shelves I could travel at a blink, just by turning a few pages, from the stomach of a termite to nineteenth century Japan and the world as pictured by artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige; from there I might go to a study of the elements in the periodic table, or a life of Leonardo da Vinci; from there I might choose a history of Ireland or an examination of Buddhist theories of causation; there are books on birds’ eggs; cave paintings; the secret life of trees; evolution; astronomy; geology; not to mention many works of poetry and fiction.
Sometimes now I think of every book as a coil of rope offering access to whatever subject it’s concerned with. Language provides us with a means of extending the topography of our experience beyond its immediate, individual environs; it takes us to summits and crevasses, lets us cross oceans and deserts that are not part of the territory we occupy. By its means we can travel enormous distances both in time and space. The rope it spools out is more umbilical cord than inert cable. Through it come the nutrients of information, insight, interest, and amusement that we need. It allows us to share our lives with others as it allows them to put before us their perspectives and concerns. It helps us mesh together as a social species. It allows us to enter deep time, before any of us existed, it takes us to places we could never visit in the flesh – the stomach of a termite being just one example – it lets us see aspects of the world we would be blind to without it.
Looking along my bookshelves, I imagine the covers between the separate volumes dissolving and the ropes that each contains being spliced together until there’s just a single massive line of corded words representing my whole reading life. It runs through the years, part nerve, part vein, part umbilical. The contours of sensibility it has created have done much to shape the landscape of the self. Without reading threaded through me, my life would have been significantly impoverished. And moving beyond the individual scale, where would we be as a species if all the words we’ve minted and exchanged were to be deleted from our cultural chromosomes and we fell silent again?
Do words provide the templates around which we weave our thoughts? Or do thoughts create the blueprints for the words we craft, so that we make them according to the invisibilities of intellection, thus giving public form to what is private, formless? Do thoughts crystallize around words, or words around thoughts? I suspect the two modalities are so intimately interlinked that to try to pull them apart would be to disfigure both and distort the way in which mind and language meld. The close connection between them is reminiscent of the symbiosis found within Mixotricha paradoxa, where it becomes hard to identify what is ‘own’ and what is ‘alien’ body. Given our reliance on it, language seems less a separate external presence than something that’s become part of us. The verbal and the cognitive seem intimately interdependent. As linguistic beings we are surely the outcome of as epochal a revolution, as much of a turning point, as when eukaryotic cells emerged. Language seems like an integral part of us, something we’ve engulfed along the way and made our own. What we’ve learned to do with words is astonishing. We can talk about the constituents of atoms, catch in our marks upon a page the intricacies of photosynthesis, write about the age and likely origin of our planet, store in our paragraphs the history, psychology and physiology of our species. Listen to us and you can hear a closeness of association, the symbolic become symbiotic, an intimate conjoining of life and language. Our course through history, indeed our very nature, is moulded by the sounds and shapes we daily forge in speech and writing.
Words allow us to navigate our way through life, but map is not territory. The ground we walk on is very different from our verbal accounts of it. It would be foolish to imagine there’s a one-to-one correspondence between language and landscape, word and world. Our diction simplifies, omits, distorts, and highlights. We talk and write in patterns that mirror the isobars dictated by the weather of our needs. Language is obedient to the imperatives of desire and hunger, greed and curiosity, love and hatred, rather than to any objective lexicon that offers a verbatim tracing of what’s there. But for all their limitations and distortions, words extend and enhance our cognitive reach, provide us with enzymes for understanding what, without them, we couldn’t digest. Language is a kind of micro-fauna of the mind, the essential tool in our cognitive toolkit. We farm it in our diction and rely on the harvests that it offers. For all its familiarity, it is as incredible as anything that happens in the stomach of a termite.
All quotes are taken from Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London: 2004.