If the history of our planet and the existence of life upon it were to be displayed as a clock-face, with its beginning at twelve o’clock, the appearance of the first humanoid beings—our distant, distant precursors—would not occur until the hands had swept around to the merest sliver of time before twelve again.
Life itself, however, in its earliest, most basic form, would have begun much earlier, when the hands were approaching two o’clock. The difference in real time is about four billion years, based on the fossil record so far uncovered. Bacteria, for example, are a subset of prokaryotes, the earliest type of life on earth.
Life existed, in other words, for four billion years before the first hominim stood up on hind-legs, discovered oppositional thumbs, and (possibly) wondered who or what (s)he was.
All this time later, modern humans claim supremacy over the planet and everything living in its embrace. Such foolhardiness, as we shall see.
We do so, I suppose, out of a belief that we are the most highly-intelligent life-form yet evolved. Our basic intelligence—distinct from other species because of our imagination and curiosity, which allow us to ask such questions as Why?, How?, and What if…?—varies widely among individual humans, but is demonstrably more advanced than that of other species.
If the specie-specific intelligences of all life-forms, as we measure them, were arrayed on a graph, the human sort would be a tiny triangle at the very top of a much larger triangle, the lower intelligences of inferior life-forms spreading out below ours.
But that ranking may be misleading because of the definition of intelligence we apply in order to do the grading. If the essential purpose of every known life-form is to perpetuate the species, to survive, and if each group’s success at doing so is the ultimate measure of intelligence, then our ranking would certainly be much different on the graph.
Very recently, a study undertaken at Indiana University posited that the earth might presently host almost one trillion distinct species, of which less than one-thousandth of one percent have been identified. We might imagine that we are one of the very few species among them to possess an awareness of the others’ existence, but that awareness may not matter much.
A parasite life-form, firmly attached to a host, may not be cognitively aware of its host, but it thrives and reproduces because of their symbiotic relationship—even as the host dies. The trillions of bacteria that live on our bodies, most of them in the intestinal tract, may have no cognitive awareness of us, but they are essential to our survival, and they reproduce exponentially.
In fact, it has been argued that our human bodies are nothing more than carrying-cases for our microbiome, a coalition of genes from several different species, only one of which is human.
Most bacteria are beneficial to us, but certain types, pathogenic or disease-carrying, can be harmful. They exist in three main forms—cocci, bacilli, and spirilla—and reproduce so quickly that they can overrun an otherwise-healthy organism, causing illness and even death.
Another species posing a threat to us, perhaps the smallest and simplest life-form of any on earth, is the virus. By themselves, viruses are inanimate, requiring a host in which to multiply and grow—which they do by invading a host-cell, causing it to produce infected cells that attack other cells, and eventually killing the host.
The drive to survive among bacteria and viruses is relentless. Human intelligence has inspired the development of methods to combat them—antibiotics, such as penicillin, amoxicillin, and tetracycline for bacteria; vaccinations and antiviral drugs, among them acyclovir and interferon, for viruses. For a long time, these have been effective.
There is some evidence, however, that pathogenic bacteria and viruses are evolving into organisms with an immunity to the drugs we administer. This comes as no surprise, really, because all living things evolve over time through a process of random mutation and selection. The alarming thing is that these ‘superbugs’ may be outstripping our ability to develop new drugs to combat them.
Imagine, for instance, if all our defenses against bacterial infections and viral illnesses were to be rendered useless. Which species would survive, the highly-intelligent one of which we are a part, or the simple, ruthless ones that have existed for the better part of four billion years?
And if not us, then which of the species is truly the most intelligent? The human one that spawned Newton and Marie Curie, Mozart and Dylan, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa? Or the simple ones that have ensured their survival over billions of years on the planet?
As Einstein once wrote, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
But history tells us that, although humans are not naturally resistant to every bacterial and viral infection that might assail us, we are naturally resistant to change.
That is a problem.