“We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.”
― Carl Sagan, from Cosmos
We think we know all of what we are, and control all of what we do. We say we’re responsible and entitled to our authority, and so we’re due life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and not just from our government but from nature. A disease seems unfair, even unjust. But nature doesn’t agree, and we can’t win the argument, so we view the virus as separate and evil.
We have little authority at the microscopic level of the virus, aside from taking care of ourselves. But then, with regard to our environment, we don’t act responsibly, either. We think of ourselves as individuals, but we are an ecosystem inside and out. We are larger and smaller, older and less responsible for our situation and our fate than we believe.
It’s not clear whether our sense of identity is even necessary for our survival. Most animals, to whom we grant little self-identity or rights of life, not only survive but harmoniously prosper. It would be hard to argue that humans achieve greater life, liberty, or happiness than other animals. We take it for granted.
For one hundred years after Alexander von Humboldt introduced the idea of ecology, it was just an idea, a theory, a fantasy. In the 1970s we started to see some consequences in urban pollution, limited resources, and effects of a global nature. Ecology, which was already a political football since the time of Malthus, became a populist slogan with back-to-the-earth movements represented by The Whole Earth Catalog, Greenpeace, Earth First! and others.
These movements were a hotchpotch of cultural change, anti-corporatism, communalism, and romanticism. They lacked a sustaining plan, goal, community, or economy and, because of this, they lacked unity. Ecology of this sort said, “Save our resources!” With the unspoken addendum of “… for us.” This is not ecology; it’s sustainable planning engaging in a group hug in which no one was serious. No one knew what was going on.
To this day, there is no comprehensive definition of ecology. Small “e” ecology amounts to doing bad things less: conservation. Big “e” ecology has tried to define itself as Deep Ecology, but this keeps falling down. It falls down because it still has no plan or goal. Ecology is not separable from the whole ecosystem, which includes the wills of people and the wiles of governments.
Real ecology is a way of being, not a way of thinking, because being will maintain itself. Real ecologies involve feedback between all of their interacting parts. Until we, as humans, have an awareness of all the parts that we affect, we can’t plan a sustainable ecology.
A map of viral RNA.
To the virus, we are not people, we’re just an oasis of resources in a barren landscape. For them, or it, we are everything and, were they religious, they might revere us as the animals on which they depend.
“It was an exciting moment… People realized we didn’t know anything about microbial biodiversity.”
— Jean-Michel Claverie, evolutionary microbiologist, 2003 co-discoverer of Mimivirus.
What does it feel like to be the prey instead of the predator? Are we any less important because our survival is not assured? If the survivor is recognized as the superior form, what of the virus which will never die?
We shepherd our external ecosystem and our internal biota. The viruses are the wolves. If we understood the necessary role the virus played, could we collaborate? Do the caribou feel sympathy for the wolves?
The wolves keep the herd strong in several ways. First, they remove the weak so the strong prevail, improving the herd. Second, their threat compels collaboration, communication, and consensus. And third, when the ecosystem is balanced, resources are used effectively.
We’re in a similar position. The virus does endanger the weak. We might object that one’s immunity doesn’t reflect one’s importance but, in the end, the virus is the arbiter of fitness. If we valued our elders more, we wouldn’t warehouse them in vulnerable nursing homes. That’s society’s choice. Are we going to do anything differently now?
What of our strength? We can improve the emotional and nutritional quality of our lives. The virus is a test of our health decisions, many of which we’ve been lamenting and ignoring for years. Many of our decisions have served short-term wants over long-term interests.
Unlike wolves to caribou, the virus gives us things. In fact, viruses have contributed greatly to our evolution. Viruses are the only organism that shares its genetic code to both create mutualistic relations and to actually transport genetic material between organisms. Viruses share genes across the entire tree of life. Much of our own genes have been acquired from viruses. Our mammalian placenta has a viral origin. Eight percent of human DNA is of viral origin.
“We use DNA from viruses to do things that are essential to our own survival, scientists are finding. Somehow, we have managed to domesticate some of these invaders.” — Carl Zimmer, New York Times
When attacked, we circle the wagons. Is the virus’s ability to penetrate our defenses a reflection of its strength or our weakness? Surviving illness involves more than running under the skirts of medicine or government. How healthy is it that the most we know about our own bodies is what we see on TV news?
The virus is not a personal or social assault—it’s an environmental event. More than an event, it is a consequence of our choices. If we don’t see it as an aspect of something for which we’re responsible, then we will not only fail to control our future but we also fail to create our own sustainable environment.
“It’s not an either-or—are these things good or bad? It’s a lot more complicated than that… We’re barely at the beginning of this research.” — Dr. Aris Katzourakis, virologist
Humboldt’s mountains and rivers of the world.
Alexander von Humboldt, living in the first half of the 19th century, was more celebrated in his lifetime than any scientist in history; more widely followed than Newton or Einstein and on a par with how we now view Leonard da Vinci. As the original Indiana Jones, he did more than anyone to make science a household word. An effusive romantic, Humboldt bridged heart and mind by presenting science as life.
But his discoveries were too much for the world: before Darwin’s theory of evolution—which he directly inspired—in a world dominated by colonialism, Humboldt claimed everything was related and connected at every scale. And not just in the small or local sense, but incorporating all humans, plants, animals, geography, meteorology, and astronomy. The implications that the whole world is a balanced ecosystem went unheeded, until today.
It was Humboldt’s five-volume Cosmos that led Carl Sagan—150 years later, in his own production of Cosmos—to declare, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star-stuff.”
The 1ppr peridinin chlorophyll protein.
The Next Step
Recognizing star-stuff is not enough. The rocks are made of star-stuff, but they don’t have the responsibility that we do. Even our complex structure does not explain us. It’s our relationships to things that define us.
Rise above the idea that things can be understood in terms of their components. The solar system is made of dust, and it has created a sun, planets, and an environment that fosters life. Same stuff, different result. After you die, you are made of the same stuff as when you were alive. There’s no “thing” missing, but you are missing because all of your relationships are gone: you are in the relationships of things.
For as long as people have been thinking, we’ve been breaking things down. Even after our most fundamental science tells us there’s nothing at the smallest levels, we keep looking. Rearrange the equation E=mc^2 and you get mass equals energy divided by the speed of light squared: it’s all energy and light. What seems like matter is actually the energy of relationships!
Relationships have effects that extend beyond the systems that are related. Such relationships between things don’t end at the boundaries of the things. A virion is small, but the virus is as large as the ecosystem, perhaps bigger than our own ecosystem, since the virus can cross between species. The virus is as big as the relationships it creates.
All the virus is one entity. The virions are all clones who depend on their relationship to our cells. As long as we are blind to their identity, they will continue to mine us as a resource. We are a resource they have no reason to conserve.
You can change your relationship to your cells, in yourself, with your environment. By finding a deeper connection at all levels, you reshape the structure of the relationships and the matter created from them. It isn’t one domain or the other. This isn’t just a microscopic, personal, or social issue; the ecology is all of them in relationship with each other.
You will not defeat the virus. You will not conquer your emotions. You will not subjugate the environment. The virus, your emotions, and the environment all require a balance, an alliance, and you learn this alliance by creating it.
All doing starts with a vision, an image, as what can be imagined. All insight and direction comes from there. You must create the ecosystem in your imagination, like a hologram, as something you can recall, recreate, and re-experience.
I have created a guided visualization called “Ecology,” which guides you toward experiencing yourself as a system in a larger system, and to think beyond mechanism to synergy and balance. To act in harmony with our environment, we must feel our environment and act in consonance with our feelings. Ecology is not just acting to maintain the balance; it’s maintained by understanding at a deeper level that it is the right thing.
Viruses transfer DNA between all life forms.
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