Science and Spirit: The Rise of Life

A puppeteer, a Shaman, a priest, a Crone. They stand in the circle of bonfire, or upon the altar of worship, and tell their stories. The men, women, and children listen, and they are captivated, sometimes frightened, sometimes comforted .

Like this one: the legend of creation from the Rig Veda in India about a primal seed that floated in the fathomless sea. For one thousand years it slept, embraced by the warm generative ocean waters until it grew into a great cosmic egg until the wind blew, agitating the waters and cleaving the golden egg in two, out of which like an embryo giving birth to life fire, a Lord surfaced, yearning to create world for himself. And so he did.

This story, this myth which contains its own metaphorical truth, is one of the many told since ancient times to describe and to explain the mysterious, miraculous rise of life on the Earth.  And there is what mathematician and religious naturalist Brian Swimme calls the Universe Story, the story based in evolving scientific discovery of the genesis of our Universe: the galaxies, the stars, and planets, including our own.

It’s a story about great heat and star dust, and of life appearing much earlier in the life of our planet than we might have ever imagined—in tidal pools, in clay beds, or in volcanic vents, life emerged. And from that first life, all other life has come.

Bill Bryson in his Short History of Nearly Everything, a scientific odyssey, a telling of this Universe Story, makes clear how mystifying the rise of life really is. How difficult, how impossible really it has still been to try to replicate the protein soup, as he calls it, that generated the first stirrings of life so long ago. The DNA, proteins, the atoms, the molecules.

The carbon, the hydrogen, oxygen, the nitrogen. The combination of elements in just the right order in just the right atmosphere.

And how early in the Earth’s history that life arose. Not the few thousand years proposed by bible fundamentalists. Not the less than 600 million years assumed by scientists well into the middle of the 20th century, or even the 2.5 billion years projected by a few adventurous souls in the 1970’s.  But the present data, Bryson declares of 3.85 billion years is stunning early, as the surface of the world did not become solid until 3.9 billion years ago, a blink of the eye in the timeline of the galaxy.

Life emerged swiftly, so swiftly that some scientists have been convinced that it was helped along by a crashing meteor studded with amino acids. Some scientists, dismissed as imprudent, on the fringes of responsible speculation, have even suggested that Earth was deliberately seeded with life by intelligent aliens.

But whatever prompted life to begin, it happened just once. Everything, Bill Bryson tells, that ever lived, plant or animal, dates its beginnings from the same primordial twitch. In imaginative language he describes to us how some little bag of chemicals fidgeted into life, cleaved itself and produced an heir. It was the moment of creation, he says, for all of us. It was what scientists call The Big Birth.

Many of you may be familiar with the Seven Wonders of the World, historically a listing of the seven sites known to the Ancient Greeks as the most notable locales in their known world, all created by humans: pyramids, hanging gardens, statues, temples. In 1997, our own CNN announced a new configuration, naming the so-called Seven Natural Wonders of the World: the Grand Canyon, The Great Barrier Reef, the Harbor at Rio de Janeiro, Mt. Everest, the Northern Lights, Paricutin Volcano and Victoria Falls, great and grand wonders.

What isn’t on that list of most wondrous natural locations is a place called Shark Bay, which  is to be found  a long way from anywhere in West Australia. It is, as described by paleontologist Richard Fortey, a huge and ragged bite into the profile of the western coast of that country and continent, designated as a World Heritage Center for the discovery there in 1961 of a community of stromatolites, a kind of living rock, a slightly weird but solid structure, mounds built up slowly by microscopic organisms- that first appeared 3.5 billion years ago on earth.

Stromatolites are the most ancient organic structures, and their discovery, first as fossils and later  still alive and well in a few places, changed the way we now understand the endurance of life on earth and the evolution of its atmosphere. Swarming with life, three billion individual organisms on every square yard of rock, giving out oxygen that in two billion years raised the level of oxygen 20 percent, preparing the way for ever more complex and new forms of life. This giver of life did not die out, but has survived in the saltiest of sea waters, proof of the ingenuity and versatility of our ecology.

Paleontologist Fortey admits that viewed with complete impartiality when it comes to visual impact, the Shark Bay mounds are not on par with the Empire State Building or the pyramids of Cheops. But the stromatolites, no matter that they are quite dull, lusterless and gray, and that they indeed most resemble cow pats, he believes they are indeed one of the wonders of the world.

Rationalists are not permitted to have shrines, he says, but if they were, Shark Bay, where these ancient living rocks were discovered, which is now a minor tourist destination, might be high on the list. They give proof to how old, how continuous, and how discoverable life is.

When I read about this remote corner of Australia and its exciting microbiological treasures, I wondered if my father, who was a microbiologist, had ever visited Shark Bay.

He had after all traveled to and lived in Melbourne on a year- long scientific exchange project, a decade after the discovery of those old rocks teeming with tiny organisms. Did he make the drive, navigate the boardwalks, view the ugly but venerable species?

I am sorry now that before he died I did not ask him what his list of seven natural wonders would be, the places in the world he had gone or would have wanted to go that were the most splendid to him, as a humanist, as a naturalist. Whether his list would include the habitats of the smallest creatures and oldest vestiges of original life.

As young children, my three brothers and I had been taken to the same places other children go to see non -human animals and exotic plants: the National Zoo, where we preferred the tall and big animals: elephants and lions. National Parks where we saw moose and elks and giant bears. Sea parks and aquariums where we watched the dolphin and whale shows. Like my two year old grandson in Singapore who holds up oversized plastic animals to the Skype camera: dinosaurs, of course and giraffes, children, it would seem, like large-scale mammals in their pantheon of fauna.

We went to beaches, like most children, with our pails and shovels, dipping our toes in the cold Pacific waters, scrambling back to warmer drier sand.  We picked up, before it was illegal to do so, abalone shells and clam and mussel shells, less as specimens then as trinkets.

I do remember being eight years old and being taken on a field trip to Moss Beach, now a protected nature preserve, for the first time, where there were dozens of tide pools to climb around in and explore in our worn out sneakers. There, even the young child I was then grasped something extraordinary, as John Steinbeck wrote: “It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

What wonder there was in the variety and intensity of life in those shallow indentations on the rocky shore:  lichen and barnacles, hermit crabs, sea palms and sea anemones, sea urchins, and sea stars.

The coming in and out of the ocean waves, the hungry cries of the gulls and other predators.

These tiny and fragile manifestations of the Universe Story.

My family later on bought a weekend house at Moss Beach, where I as a teenager I became less and less enchanted with anything having to do with that frigid Northern California coastline, chilled and blown by fog and winds, and my father and brothers spent most of their time watching shore birds or fishing off a nearby pier with drop lines and nowhere hear those pools of micro creatures.

It was only in his laboratory, where I would visit him afternoons after school, that I connected my father, the microbiologist, to a fascination with and focus on small living things only visible under a microscope lens. He had several labs over the course of my growing up: at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, where he devoted research to malaria and other parasitic diseases; at Stanford, where he was the lead investigator for  a cancer research division, at the Palo Alto Medical Research Foundation where he headed up the microbiology lab, contributing important insights into gene mutation and the genesis of cancer; and later CDC, where he finished his career investigating drug resistant strains of tuberculosis.

I never asked him and he never chose to tell me, so much a member of the Silent Generation as he was, how he came to choose the study of tiny organisms, deadly ones, cancers and viruses at that, as his life’s work. I knew he had loved to study birds and insects as a child in Boston, taking long walks through the parks and commons.

How did he go from watching and learning about animals he could see with his bare eyes or binoculars, to spending hours and days and years  cooped up inside a sterile room, squinting at clusters of cells?

Was it really, as one of my brothers recently told me, simply a matter of vocational counseling, advice from a college professor that it would be more advantageous, career-wise, for him to go the bacteria route versus the insect route? Or might it be that microbes were and are inherently beguiling and challenging and omnipresent in our lives as humans?

We are told that every human body consists of about ten quadrillion cells but is host to about 100 quadrillion bacterial cells. They are, in short, a big part of us. They dine off of the ten billion or so flakes of skin we shed every day: we are a perfect buffet. There are trillions more tucked away in our guts and nasal passages, cling to our hair and eyelashes, and drill through the enamel in our teeth.

We couldn’t live without them, Bill Bryson reminds us—they process our wastes and make them usable again, they synthesize the vitamins in our stomachs, and go to war with alien microbes that slip down our gullets. They provide the air we breathe and keep our environment stable.

They will live and thrive on almost anything we spill, dribble or shake loose. They eat wood, the glue in wallpaper, the metals in hardened paint. They have been found living and thriving in boiling mud pots and lakes of caustic soda, deep inside rocks and at the bottom of the sea.

Yet as common as they are, microbe life can be exasperatingly difficult to isolate and study, scientists have found. Only one percent will grow in a culture, in the agar of a petri dish. They are elusive, they are hard to replicate, they defy us at every research turn.

When they are good, they are very very good, essential to our survival. Most microbes are harmless enough, even beneficial. In fact, in a new interior design movement, the beauty of bacteria plays a lead role, including the marketing of a Bacterioptica, a chandelier containing petri dishes with bacterial cultures that change the quality of the light.

But when they are bad, they are very very bad: causing a whole plethora of infectious diseases, often with the help of insect carriers, mosquitoes in particular: malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, encephalitis, and a hundred or so less celebrated maladies. They can outwit antibiotics, become completely resistant, especially as we over prescribe and ingest them.

There well may be a bacterial component, we are now informed, in kinds of other disorders: heart disease, asthma, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis, a disease that my father was inflicted with, perhaps as a result of his constant exposure to microbes and live viruses over the course of 40 years.

Viruses that attack healthy bodies and bacteria afflict us with smallpox, rabies, polio, ebola and AIDS, reproducing in a fanatical manner, doing immense damage. They can sweep through a population in epidemic proportions—like the Great Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918, which killed 21 million people in four months.

Perhaps it was this—the inescapability of microscopic life—the ways we depend on it, the ways we are threatened by it , that convinced my father, as so many others, past and present to join the ranks of  microbe hunters, popularized in a book by  bacteriologist and pathologist Paul De Kruif in 1926. Translated into 18 languages, this is a classic account of the first scientists to see and learn about the microscopic world, including how a microbe was first viewed in a clear drop of rainwater and when, for the first time ever, Louis Pasteur discovered that a simple vaccine could save a man from the ravages of rabies by attacking the microbes that cause it.

It chronicles the dedication, near obsession of these men: their eagerness to live the life of endless and often disappointing experimentation, as well as those who would rather study poetry and epic drama than dedicate their lives so singularly. It documents the fierce competition among these researchers to be the first to discover a cause or cure; fanatical, even swallowing tubes of virulent cholera microbes in search of scientific progress,  the dubious, cruel and deadly use of animals and  human subjects. Let alone the massive contributions they made to the dream of ridding the world of killing diseases.

It is telling that my father gave my brother a copy of Microbe Hunters to read when he was 10 years old, never discussing it with him, but obviously tying to expose him to his scientific world and perhaps a possible following in his footsteps career option. I have no doubt that my dad had read the same book when he was younger and that it influenced him: whether for its look at the pure virtues and grandeur of this line of scientific work, or the sometimes not so pure and not so ethical thrill of the microbiological chase.

My father, like the pioneer biologists before him, believed that the major infectious diseases, the plagues of human kind, could and would be cured in his time through human agency, not erroneous beliefs in evil spirits or blind faith in a supernatural being. He began with work in   wiping out malaria, and was convinced that this would be eradicated. It still afflicts millions of men, women and children worldwide, who need the simple and inexpensive mosquito netting that might keep them from harm. Joy Borra, one of our own members, undertook a 60th birthday project to help supply these to one African village with life saving and heartening results.

My father, the public health microbiologist, had lived through the end of the great flu epidemic and the epidemics of polio, and through his associations with scientists working on the vaccine against this crippling disease, he was certain it too would be completely eradicated. What would he have thought about the recurrences in three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan of an entirely preventable disease, or of the killings of at least nine polio vaccine workers shot together in Nigeria just a month ago, most of the victims women and all shot in the back of the head, victims of suspicion and  superstition.

He lived long enough to know that 90 percent of staph bacteria had become immune to penicillin, which had been the miracle cure. He remained well read and well informed enough to know about newly emerging global diseases, coming plagues, the eruption of new and old infectious diseases due to the dramatic increases in the worldwide movement of people, and the infectious microbes we carry with us.

He was and would be today disappointed, especially when human ignorance and bad health practices were and are the reason for the lack of progress in fulfilling his dream of limiting and even ending the scourge of bacterial and viral illnesses and deaths. But I don’t believe he ever lost his optimism about his own journey of self-discovery through science or his humanistic faith.

He was never a literal or laboratory foxhole theist. He would have concurred with ,though I do not know whether he ever actually read, the Humanist Manifestos, beginning with the very first one, which was prefaced by the assumption that our  larger understanding of the universe and our scientific achievements, among other changes in understanding and knowledge, had created a situation which  called for a new statement of the means and purposes of religion, including the incorporation of and valuing of the scientific spirit and method: exploratory, open to continuing revelation and life affirming.

He would have agreed, I also believe, with Dr. F. Gonzalez-Crussi, a fellow microbe hunter and public health worker, that while our optimism about winning the war against deadly strains of infectious disease was premature, that there will be yet again a new generation of microbe hunters who will, in his words, thwart the invaders once more.

That human intelligence will serve us well, this time as in the past,  that the solution lies in science and technology, not in fear and blame.

We must believe all this, he says. For we have no choice.

Reinhold Neibuhr, a Christian theologian whose beliefs would not have been my father’s, nonetheless captures for me his state of mind and sentiments as his life ended:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; Therefore we are saved by hope.

Hope as ancient and enduring as those first tiny outcroppings of  life all those billions of years ago.

The Big Birth.

May it be so .