The Virtues in Vice – The Outrageous Rules of Life

By

Howard Bloom

Bacteria Wars

“A junkyard contains all the bits and pieces of a Boeing 747, dismembered and in disarray. A whirlwind happens to blow through the yard. What is the chance that after its passage a fully assembled 747, ready to fly, will be found standing there? So small as to be negligible, even if a tornado were to blow through enough junkyards to fill the whole Universe.” ― Fred Hoyle, The Intelligent Universe

Roughly 3.85 billion years ago, when our first foremothers, the first bacteria, appeared in the roiling, boiling seas of earth, the odds against the survival of the first teaspoon of life  were trillions of trillions to one.  Every sane calculation of probability shows that a final apocalypse, an end of life, was inevitable.  Why? There were vastly more ways that life could fall apart than the tiny number of ways life could fall together.  Yet life survived.  Why?

Because there were commandments, algorithms, built into it at the deepest levels.  Built into its biology.  And those commandments were not what we think of as natural.  In fact, they made a mockery of two laws science believes are basic to the very nature of this cosmos: entropy and the law of least effort.  And life’s commandments went against the current notion that humankind is a cancer, a tumor that’s about to destroy the planet.

To put it in blunt and ghastly human terms, life’s imperatives, its rules, were imperialist, colonialist, expansionist, ambitious, greedy, arrogant, ambitious, and acquisitive.  Those commandments demanded growth.  They called for materialism, consumerism, and waste.  And they would soon call for vain display.  Why?

Rule number one of life was manic mass production.  The Bible did a good job of summing it up: “”Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.”[i]  “Multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven.”[ii]  Kidnap, seduce, and recruit every dead atom in sight.  Weave it into the grand enterprise of life.    Make as many copies of yourself and your communities as you can.  Then make even more.  Bulk yourself up.  Increase your numbers.  Expand the size of your societies.  Expand the territory you control. Grow a macromolecular web of information exchange.  Grow a global brain. But most of all, increase your total biomass.  Increase life’s share of the atomic weight of the planet.

Do more.  Overpopulate the place.  Every time you reach what seems to be the carrying capacity of your environment, open up new realms of nothingness. Reinvent every hell.  Turn deserts and dire straits into landscapes.  Turn toxins into riches beyond your ancestors’ wildest dreams. Every time you reach the limit, invent a frontier beyond it.  Invent an untapped landscape of abundance.  How?  How do you invent resources?

In evolutionary biology, it’s called “niche construction.”  You invent ways to mine the impossible.  You invent new tools of exploitation.  You invent new tricks.  You invent new natural technologies.

  • Nothing but rock in sight?  Fine.  Invent new ways to eat rock and turn it into food, fuel, and biostuff.  Invent chemolithoautotrophy.
  • The waters around you are impossibly acidic?  Fine.  Invent membrane pumps that turn an acid bath into a wonderland.  Invent acidophil.
  • Ghastly level of salt pollutes the water that you’d like to make your home?  Terrific.  Rejigger your internal chemistry to keep the salts out and to make over-salted seas your private paradise.  Invent halophily.
  • Threatened by puddles of poisonous ammonia? Terrific.  Invent metabolic tricks that make ammonia your favorite energy drink. Congratulations, you’ve created ammoniaphily.

Which leads to the rule that makes all this possible: be creative.  Reperceive your surroundings.  Remanufacture your environment.  Bring things that have never previously existed into being.  Turn catastrophes into opportunities.    Turn poisons into gourmet buffets.  Turn toxins into treats.  Turn terrors into novelties.  And invest in transportation.   Be restless–spread, move, migrate.  Turn every wilderness into a promised land and every danger zone into a delight.  Take over every emptiness within reach. And stretch to lands and seas far beyond your normal grasp. Explore, grope, scope, test, and travel.  Adventure.  Take big risks and seek your fortune everywhere.  But, again, don’t just find new frontiers.  Invent them.

And there’s one more tiny trick.  Harness the power of paradox.  Harness the synergy you get when you join opposites at the hip.  In this case, there is an extraordinary tool that creates new forms of teamwork.  It’s teamwork’s opposite: competition.  Insane, artificial, trivial competition.   Just ask any NFL, NBA or FIFA team owner.  Create differences.  Then flaunt them.

For example, gather your genes in a highly-structured nucleus, a central data library surrounded by fortress walls, and use the advantages of your armored nucleus to outcompete conservative cousins who insist on keeping their genes free-floating in an unprotected, necklace-like ring.   The naked ring of genes adherents were bacteria.  The creators of a fortress surrounding a library of genes would be eukaryotes.  They would be the ancestors of multi-cellular life.  Of you and me.

But there’s more.  To compete, grab hold of smaller bacteria, imprison them within your cell, and work out a bargain.  Give your prisoners protection and feed them what they most like to eat.  In exchange, coax them into excreting their sewage in a form that is candy to you.  Develop organelles.  Develop the power sources called mitochondria.

Then use your newly-invented teamwork to make your cousins look silly.  Not just your old-fashioned cousins with the undefended rings of genes, but your newfangled cousins with nuclei like yours.   Go nuts setting up barriers and distinctions.  Set up combats between us—versus-them .  Separate into the equivalent of Dodgers, Red Sox, and Yankees.  Better yet, separate into the equivalent of soccer versus football versus basketball and football.  Separate into archaebacteria, eukaryotes, and eubacteria.[viii]  Why?  To increase your odds of finding whole new ways of making a living in the killing splatter, boil, and freeze.   To increase your odds of researching and developing new genes and new “phenotypes,” new cell bodies,   Spiral twists, propulsive whips, rod-like bodies, thread-like bodies, spherical bodies, bodies that move by oozing, bodies that build crystalline boxes around themselves, bodies  that glue themselves in place, bodies that scoot, scud, and race.

Competition  is wasteful.  It eats up time and energy.   But do not be deceived.  Competition is a form of cooperation in disguise.  Competition drives invention.  Competition pits materialist communities against each other and forces  them to build up surplus, then to expend it needlessly.  Competition pits bacterial societies against each other to see who can throw the most away, who can afford to generate the most waste. One bacterial colony will use chemical weapons to utterly exterminate another,[ix] leaving the landscape littered with bacterial corpses.  Leaving the landscape littered with lives that have been kindled in matter, then thrown away. And humans in war will leave behind vast numbers of destroyed tanks, planes, and dead young men.    Competition is consumerism run amok, and consumerism is a curse. Right?  Surely cooperation would accomplish more for less. And with a whole lot less stress.  But in the natural world, that is not the case.

If you are the first teaspoonful of life, how will you survive 142 mass extinctions?  By using the fact that competition is the ultimate way to energize a global public works program–to explore the farthest nooks and crannies of possibility space and to bring your discoveries back to your companions and even to your competitors.  To beat you, your competitors will ape you.  They will learn every new trick that you’ve invented.  Competition creates a massive information pipeline with your enemies.  And competition increases the solidarity, within your group. Competition boosts cooperation.  This is the power of paradox.  This is the power of opposites joined at the hip.  So you—life—will survive by spending big time on competition.

You will survive by using yet another form of materialism, consumerism, and waste– gambling.  You will survive by using one of the most grotesque forms of excess this cosmos has ever created. You will survive by finding more than a trillion trillion trillion ways to place your bets.[x] You will create over a trillion trillion trillion organisms, each one a feeler into the landscape of possibility space.  Each one an antenna of a cosmos feeling out her potential. And each one subject to the ultimate form of disposability.   The ultimate form of one-time-use—death.  A form of consumerist waste that nature wallows in.  The result?

The next time a planetesimal the size of a city splats the sea with the force of a million atomic bombs, the next time a cloud of galactic fluff plunges the temperature into the deep freeze, the next time the carbon dioxide goes up by a factor of two hundred and fries the place, and the next time a mega-volcano turns the world you’re living in dark as night for three years or more, you will be prepared.[xi]  You will be prepared not just to hunker down in energy-saving mode and tough it out.  You will be prepared to exult.  You will be prepared to be fruitful and multiply.

No light?  Fine.  You will make your energy from hydrogen sulfide or iron.  Hot as hades?  Terrific.  You will have microbial forms that thrive in the 250 degree temperatures of thermal chimneys in the deep sea.  Galactic fluff plunges the planet into the deep freeze?  Terrific.  You will have bacteria who get a kick out of living on the underside of ice.

Put it all together, and you will have a force of nature that thrives via what some of us mistakenly call rape.  Not to mention a force of nature that exults in gross disrespect for the status quo.  A force of nature that exults in indiscriminate consumerism, industrialism, materialism, litter and waste.  You will have life.