Born Cooperating

by Harry

Being human is hard. It’s probably the hardest thing most of us will do, so it’s best not attempted alone.

From the very beginning, we are faced with dazzling complexity. The development of our physical body requires a head-spinning amount of biochemical splitting and sorting. One single cell divides innumerable times, and organizes itself into a human being; we are born made up of trillions of cells.

Fortunately, we have help at a very basic level. Most of our cells don’t even belong to us, outright; by the time we are adults, our bodies will contain ten times more bacterial cells than uniquely human ones. University of Massachusetts biologist Lynn Margulis was quoted in the New Yorker last year saying: “There is no such thing as an individual. What we see as animals are partly just integrated sets of bacteria.”

You and I, and everyone we know, are products of a long chain of symbiotic cooperation, Margulis has argued, (with a fair amount of controversy). Prokaryotic cells, such as bacteria, moved behind membrane curtains and evolved into organelles within eukaryotes, the nucleus-bearing cells that bind together to create pretty much all life except for, well, bacteria, blue-green algae, and these truly weird guys. Some of the earliest steps in evolution may not have depended upon survival of the fittest, but an inherent understanding that life survives best when it works together.

We are born into something larger than we can possibly know, engaged in an ages-old relationship with some of the most ancient life on the planet.