When an amoeba needs to eat, it hugs food. This process is called “phagocytosis.” The amoeba reaches out and merges again behind its meal – creating a bubble of the outer world inside itself. And here, enswathed, its food is digested. Like ourselves, amoeba are soft machines converting food into heat, exhaled carbon dioxide, and excrement.
Indeed, our whole planet can be viewed as a whirling machine converting low numbers of inbound high-frequency, low-wavelength photons from the sun into a much larger number of low-frequency, high-wavelength photons. Our Earth’s carpet of green sucks sunlight; roving animal life grazes and respires, sloughing infrared.
Those animals come in two forms: tubes and bags. Jellyfish have one opening, a mouth from which they also drool excrement. Jellyfish are bags. Most land animals have two openings, a mouth and an anus. Tubes.
No matter the form, for animals to carry on, they must engulf other life.
But, sometimes, the engulfed live on.
The “power stations” of our cells are called “mitochondria.” These look like small bacteria, but they have been tamed. Mitochondria carry some DNA, a fraction of the genes they need, but the rest of their genes are inside our cells’ central nuclei. Mitochondria were almost surely swimming freely once: now their ancestral selves can be known only by studying the organelles (little organs) inside our cells.
Stories, too, swallow each other. At times, we can learn our own history only from stray remnants that linger in the engulfing tales.
From the King James translation of Genesis,
… God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
The Hebrew scholar Umberto Cassuto argued that these lines reveal the presence of another, older myth. The phrase translated as “great whales” in King James, in the original, might be better rendered into English as “great sea-monsters” or “great sea dragons.” Which is startling – that dragons, alongside humans and cows, would be one of only three types of animals specifically named in Genesis. Humans told the story. Cows were their wealth and livelihood. Why do dragons merit such importance?
From Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch’s From Gods to God (translated by Valerie Zakovitch):
Cassuto argued that the particular identification of the sea dragons in the context of the Creation was polemical in nature. It was meant, he proposed, to remind the reader that these enormous creatures were created beings like all others: they were not divine, nor were they mythical creatures with powers to challenge God, the Creator.
In other myths that were widespread at the time Genesis was written, Earth began as a water planet. Gods lived in the sky, and other gods lived beneath the waves, but there was no land for humans. Only after an inverse gotterdammerung – a great war between sea & sky gods that marked an end to the deluge – did continents form. The soil we walk upon is a perhaps a corpse (Marduk, god of heaven, slew Tiamat, goddess of the sea, and made our world by scattering her flesh over the surface of the deep), perhaps a demilitarized zone (after Baal, god of heaven, squelched the uprising of the Prince of the Sea and his dragons, the oceans retreated – shamed, waters allowed themselves to be confined by shores).
Elsewhere in the Bible, Yahweh himself is praised for creating the world by pushing back the waters, as in the Babylonian and Ugaritic myths: Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon? Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?
This old myth has nearly faded away, but some fragment of it pulses on within the Bible… like the mitochondria preserved by our cells.
In Islam, Jesus son of Mary is incorporated into the tale – he is a prophet, preparing the way for Muhammad. He ascended bodily into heaven, but will return with armaments for the judgement. If all Christian texts were lost, we would still have these traces with which to reconstruct the beliefs of Christians. Although it’s not clear how close we’d come to the New Testament from lines like:
And when Jesus, the son of Mary, said “O children of Israel, indeed I am the messenger of Allah to you confirming what came before me of the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name is Ahmad.” But when he came to them with clear evidences, they said, “This is obvious magic.”
Jesus wrought miracles, and for these was persecuted – that much of the story would remain.
Even now, our stories strive to ingest one another. It’s like watching a pair of amoeba battle, each struggling to form the outer bubble. The theory of evolution is uncontroversial when applied to crystals or stars – the idea that what we see now will be those structures that simultaneously optimized persistence and replication in the environments they were presented with is simply thermodynamics and math.
But when applied to animals – to humans, especially – the theory of evolution is seen as an origin myth in competition with all the others: the slain dragons, the sculpted clay, Yahweh conjuring with words. And so a Christian interpretation proffers that God created humans through evolution – a teleological misconception that’s often touted as “compromise.”
(Teleological misconception: the idea that evolution has a purpose, that humans are “higher” life forms. Evolution is a random drift, with success defined only by persistence. Life forms have either made it to the present – in which case, bully for you – or they’ve gone extinct. They were well-suited for the environs or not, but there isn’t an absolute metric to judge them by. A variant form of humanity that was less innately bloodthirsty would be, to my eyes, superior to ourselves; if such creatures ever arose, they were surely slaughtered by our own forebears. Many of our worst traits seem to have helped human ancestors survive and sire children, which is all evolution “wants.”)
And, similarly, scientists attempt to engulf the old
myths within their story. Evolutionary psychologists pontificate as to the reasons why humans are compelled to invent gods and believe self-sacrificingly in them. I’ve discussed some of these previously, such as the theory that a belief in watchful gods improves human behavior, boosting interpersonal trust. People who trust one another can collaborate more easily, which might make a society more successful.
I’m a scientist, but I see no need for the theory of evolution to swallow our myth-making tendencies. A major virtue of many religious stories is their insistence on behavior that goes against the directives of the natural world.
Though shalt not kill.
For a creature striving to pass along its genes at all costs, this is foolish advice. Murder provides more to eat, more space to gather berries from, more resources of all kinds. Many species kill their own kind, to say nothing of the murder of other species. They have good reason to, from an evolutionary perspective. Yet, many religions include a prohibition against killing. In the Bible, humanity’s paradisaical form – to which we’ll return when we have returned the Earth to a state of grace – was vegetarian.
Or, the story of the Tower of Babel? As a factual account, this is absurd – ancient builders would never reach heaven. But as a way to communicate an moral precept – that our hubris can be deadly, and that because we can is insufficient rationale to attempt some goals – the story is beautiful. With sufficient biomedical and / or computational understanding, some day we might be able to live forever… but should we?
To be good stewards of this Earth, at time we must restrain our grand designs. We could gird the whole planet in steel and concrete. We could hack down the few remaining forests for farmland.
Robert Bellah gives a lovely summary of these prohibitions in his Religion in Human Evolution:
The gods had to dig out the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as well as the irrigation canals, and they found it all too much. They decided to revolt against Enlil, and having burned their work tools they surrounded his house. Enlil, frightened and barricaded at home, called on Anu and Enki for advice as to what to do. He felt like abandoning earth altogether and joining his father in the sky. But Enki, always the clever one, had a suggestion: why not create men to do the work the lesser gods found so tiresome? He killed one of the lesser gods, We-e, perhaps the ringleader of the rebellion (could we call it a strike?), and, mixing his blood with clay, fashioned the first human beings.
Enki’s plan worked almost too well: men took over the work of the gods, but greatly prospered in doing so. Their growing population became so noisy (“the land bellowed like a bull”), that Enlil could get no sleep. He sent a plague to wipe the people out, but the wise man Atrahasis consulted Enki who told him to keep the people quieter and give more offerings to the gods, and the plague ceased. Again the people increased and the noise level rose. This time Enlil sent a drought, but again Atrahasis persuaded Enki to intervene. The third time was really too much and Enlil sent a great flood to kill every human being. Enki, however, was one ahead of him and had Atrahasis construct an unsinkable boat, load it with every kind of animal, and last out the flood. When Enlil discovered what Enki had done he was furious, but meantime the decimation of the people had left the gods with no offerings, and they were beginning to starve. Enlil finally realized that humans were indispensable to the gods, and, having arranged several methods of birth control, allowed Atrahasis and his people to resettle the earth.
One might think, says [Thorkild] Jacobsen, that Enlil cut a rather poor figure with his fear, impulsiveness, and insensitivity, but to the ancients the story illustrates Enlil’s ultimate power, his stunning capacity to create a flood that could potentially destroy every living thing. Jacobsen concludes: “All the same it is clear that the myth views absolute power as selfish, ruthless, and unsubtle. But what is, is. Man’s existence is precarious, his usefulness to the gods will not protect him unless he takes care not to be a nuisance to them, however innocently. There are, he should know, limits set for his self-expression.”