Life is a collective concern, a phenomenon of absolute communality
And yet, in the interplay of the meadow's plants, insects, and microorganisms, and in the night wanderer's experience of this interplay and of his partaking in it, those familiar with recent biological research cannot fail to see a dearly tangible example of the principles upon which the world of life-forms is based. (…).
The principles made apparent by biological research show us that life is, at nearly every level, a collective concern, a shared enterprise under-taken by a wide variety of beings that arrive at a stable, functional, and thereby beautiful ecosystem by somehow putting up with one another and reaching agreements. Rivalry, competition, and selection in the Darwinian sense definitely play a role, but this is not the merciless final word; it is simply one force among many that living systems use to create and form themselves out of a multiplicity of participants. "Symbiosis" is the term often used for this cooperative process. But "symbiosis" has an overly pleasant ring to it that suppresses the fact that an ecosystem's success produces not only the happiness of brotherhood but also the horrors of annihilation. Eating others and being eaten (which lies ahead for all of us) figure into the same living fabric, as processes necessary to maintaining the stability of the whole and allowing it to experience itself.
For that reason, it would be better to say that biologists understand that life is a phenomenon of absolute communality. Flourishing in a relationship of mutual benefit is as much a part of this as lustily consuming another in order to guarantee one's own flourishing. The most astonishing thing about a meadow is not only the fact that the plants growing there create niches and a mutually beneficial micro-climate, but also that the stalks of those same plants have to be grazed in order for the meadow to remain a meadow. Their leaves and buds must be shredded by the mandibles of countless insects, to be crushed by rabbits, deer, and cows, so that they might perennially reemerge, variegated and placid. The biosphere is full of such transformations. It is the continual product of them. There is no being, no life circumstance that does not result from contact, penetration, and conversion. The cells of our bodies result from "endosymbiosis," from the contact between two different types of bacterial cells in which one of the cell types encloses the other. Only by this transformation into the body part of another could the enclosed bacteria further evolve into the organs necessary for the life of the enclosing cell. By infecting us throughout the course of our phylogeny, a multitude of viruses have infiltrated our genetic material with their DNA. The function of that DNA has transformed within our genetic matter such that it has become an indispensable part of our bodily processes. The living world is a constant conversion of one thing into another, leading to inexorable new growth.
In its incessantly renewing plenitude of life, the biosphere is no more "truthfully 'symbiotic"' than it is "fundamentally 'competitive."' There is only one immutable truth: No being is purely individual; nothing comprises only itself. Everything is composed of foreign cells, foreign symbionts, foreign thoughts. This makes each life-form less like an individual warrior and more like a tiny universe, tumbling extravagantly through life like the fireflies orbiting one in the night. Being alive means participating in permanent community and continually reinventing oneself as part of an immeasurable network of relationships. This life network is knotted to all individuals. But just a single pull, a single slipup, is enough to loosen the ties.
Mariners had painstakingly mapped the coastlines of the continents. Geographers had translated these findings into charts and globes. Photographs of ...
An inefficient virus kills its host. A clever virus stays with it.
It was the quietness of life in a medieval English village that would most strike a visitor from today—no planes overhead, no swish or rumble from traffic. Stop reading this book a minute. Can you hear something? Some machine turning? A waterpipe running? A distant radio or a pneumatic drill digging up the road? Of all the varieties of modern pollution, noise is the most insidious.
Yet in the year 1000 the hedgerows actually had a sound. You could hear baby birds chirping in their nests, and the only mechanical noise you would hear came from the wheezing of the blacksmith’s bellows. In some villages you might have heard the bell in the church tower, or the creaking and clunking of the wooden cogs in one of the water-mills that had been constructed in the last 200 years, and if you lived near one of England’s dozen or so cathedrals, you would have heard the heavy metal cascadings of sound from the copper windpipes of one of the recently imported church organs. But that was all. As bees buzzed and wood pigeons cooed, you could listen to God’s creation and take pleasure in its subtle variety.