Last night, as the trees creaked and big rain beat on the windows, I sent a video link to a friend of a crow clearly using a jar lid to sled down a snowy roof. It was accompanied by a short article in which a scientist described it as “play-like behavior.”
“I don't understand how people don't think animals play,” she replied in an email I received after walking beneath a crescent moon as shell pink clouds blew past the waterfall-streaked face of Makaleha this morning.
Really. So if it's hard for some humans to believe animals play, much less think or feel, I realize it's a big stretch to accept the fact that bacteria have something important to teach us.
But they do. After all, they've been around for some 4 billion years, compared to our measly little 100,000, only the last 6,000 of which have approached anything close to what we now congratulate ourselves on as civilization.
Meanwhile, the bacteria can watch the frenzied empire-building, colonizing, exploiting, over-populating, over-consuming human dramas that have brought our species to the brink of simultaneous crises and yawn, “Been there, done that.”
Because they have, more than once, and each time they figured out a way to adapt themselves to weather it, which resulted in an evolutionary leap. Heck, they even developed electric motors as complex as our own, and way before we did, says Dr. Elisabet Sahtouris, an evolution biologist who was the subject of a fascinating and inspiring interview on New Dimensions that you can listen to free through today.
I suggest you do, because hearing her give the abridged history of the evolution of life on the planet really helped to put things in perspective. It also gave me hope. As Sahtouris says, “Life gets creative in a time of crisis.”
So as we ponder our possible fates, it behooves us to take a few lessons from the “lowly” bacteria that not only were here first, but offer us a model for how we humans can evolve into a mature species — provided we don't kill each other off, first.
Here's the biggest tip: move beyond hostile competition to cooperation and co-creation. “We have to form a global family if we're going to make this thing work,” Sahtouris says. “We're not looking for monoculture; that's a human invention. We have to maintain the diversity and do things cooperatively within it.”
And another one: have a little more appreciation for all forms of life, especially the bacteria that play such critical roles in our own existence. Consider this: the bacteria in our guts alone regulate 80 percent of our immune system function.
“We're not supposed to call them germs and attack them all the time,” Sahtouris says. “They're so flexible. We're not as smart as they are. Our consciousness is new in evolution compared to theirs. Once we understand this, we will be demanding natural products and good food.”
Needless to say, she is an opponent of genetic engineering and factory farming practices that call for giving livestock massive doses of antibiotics. While the technically-oriented scientists who come up with this stuff do have their place, she says, “we need scientists who understand life to stand up to them when they're going off course.”
What I really liked was her description of life as “a sort of improvisational dance, constantly rebalancing itself and learning flexibility and resiliency.”
Interestingly enough, just before listening to the interview I'd written an article about acupuncture, and how its sole purpose is to help restore the balanced movement of energy through our bodies so that we can naturally repair ourselves. Ah yes, yet another ancient concept that's finally trickling into Western awareness...
Anyway, as Sahtouris sees it, we currently have "an old culture and a new culture co-existing” in human systems. The old is vigorously resisting relinquishing its power — think Mitt Romney preaching how he'll America arm to the teeth to reassert our role as a dominant force in the world — and the new fears that it won't prevail against that resisting force. But she sees the shift we're making “less like a phoenix rising from the ashes than the metamorphosis of a butterfly emerging from the caterpillar.”
In other words: “Look for ways that we can adapt,” Sahtouris says. “Be in joy, not fear or negativity.”
And embrace your role as co-creator in this dance of life.