In our last exciting episode we discussed how huge new atom communities, RNA and DNA, used membranes as fortifications, no-go zones, corrals within which RNA, DNA, and their membrane-weaving partners could maintain a specialized mini-sea, a Jell-O or Gatorade rich in vitamins, organic molecules, enzymes, sugars, carbohydrates, fatty acids, and proteins.
The Big Burp had produced cells. And each of these cells was a working community of 10^11 atoms(80)— a hundred trillion atoms combined to pursue a highly complex common purpose. But, more important, a hundred trillion atoms with a heritage passed on from mother to daughter, a past recorded in a literal inner-circle, an interior ring of genes.(81)
A hundred trillion atoms with the ability to evade danger and to find food. A hundred trillion atoms with the ability to make future predictions based on an accumulated data base, the store of information that gene-strings cadge, corner, and maintain.(82) And a hundred trillion atoms with the ability to rejigger their collective memory’s instructions on how to make the next move.
A hundred trillion atoms with the ability to reprogram their instruction-set, their genome.(83) In other words, these clusters of a hundred trillion atoms contained the first molecules in the history of the cosmos to have the advantage of culture. But how did these culture-driven molecular mobile cities manage to skyhook themselves into new niches, to turn new wastes into food, and to gain new abilities? The answer, once again, is sociality.
No cell is an island. The ancestral cells we’re talking about were bacteria. And no bacterium can live alone. Put a single bacterium in solitary confinement. Give it its own petri dish with agar spread across the bottom as food. The bacterium will not become pensive and reflective, enjoying its solitude. It will do the opposite. It will split over and over again, giving birth to a huge bacterial family.(84) And each new family member, in turn, will multiply like crazy to conquer more of the agar.(85)
Solitary bacterial cells create communities of unbelievable size around themselves in a very short amount of time. Give them a few weeks and the total bacterial tribe in your petri dish will have a population of 7 trillion(86) — more than all the humans who have ever lived. And that supersized society will not be a disorganized mass of individuals.(87) Far from it. Individual bacteria share their information with a complex chemical language.(88)
The result is an information-processing web, a massively parallel-processed computation-and-connection machine, what one leading researcher on this form of social integration among bacteria, Eshel Ben-Jacob of the University of Tel Aviv, calls a “creative web.”(89) Your bacterial culture, the bacterial mega-society in your petri dish, will be a research and development machine, a collective intelligence.
According to Ben-Jacob it will be capable of spotting problems and working to solve them, often producing solutions this cosmos has never previously seen. And at the heart of that collective expansion-and-innovation web will be, guess what? A culture.
A culture complete with monuments, with pyramids. The bacterial colonies of the first 3.5 billion years of life have left us their architecture, their massive public works projects. They’re called stromatolites.(90) Stromatolites are stone structures the size of your mattress, stone monuments poking from the shallow seas around Australia and fossilized in the rocks of Michigan.
How are they produced? They’re created by bacterial teams contributing to a massive multi-generational enterprise. A colony of bacteria exudes a gooey foundation on which it sits. Each bacterium sucks a key portion of its food—carbon dioxide—from the shallow waters of the sea. This triggers the precipitation of particles of calcium carbonate—grains of limestone—from the water. The falling microbits of stone pile up in the glue-like base of the bacterial colony.(91)
The next bacterial colony lives on top of this ultra-thin limestone residue, and in its lifetime leaves a second slick of lime. Millions or trillions of colonies later, those thin slicks of limestone add up. They create a monument nearly as big in comparison to a single bacterium as the moon is to you and me. Quite an accomplishment for creatures with collective computational powers and creativity, but without brains.
Bacteria were the founders of culture. But they were not the only cultural creatures to appear in the next 3.5 billion years of life’s evolution. They were not the only culture-gifted children of the Big Burp. In 1983, John Tyler Bonner wrote a classic book on The Evolution of Culture in Animals.(92) Bonner revealed culture in myxobacteria, slime molds, birds, whales, elephants, social insects, and chimpanzees.
Then came human culture, another multi-generational, multi-layered group project that accumulated memories, habits, and methods of turning new niches of barrenness into a paradise. We were born one of the most pathetic creatures this Earth has ever seen. Other animals were birthed with biological equipment for thermoregulation,(93) for making it through sizzling heat and biting cold. They were born with fur coats.
Not us. We were born as naked as hairless mole rats, like pieces of meat tossed to the crocodile jaws of the elements. Like our cousins, the chimps(94) and cheetahs, we were born with a lust to eat meat. We needed this high-protein diet to fuel our energy-hungry big brains.(95) But we were born without a stitch of hunting equipment. We emerged from the womb without fangs and teeth. We were born without the four legs that give horses, gazelles, and lions their speed.
We were also born without the equipment to be successful vegetarians. Our cousins, mountain apes,(96) had huge bellies capable of breaking down the cellulose fortresses that protect the cells of leaves. We, on the other hand, had relatively tiny tummies(97) that didn’t stand a chance against the vegetable roughage, the greenery that surrounded us.
Culture was our only means of rescuing ourselves. First we invented artificial fangs and teeth 2.5 million years ago.(98) We invented the Oldowan stone tool kit.(99) Then we tamed fire(100) and invented cooking,(101) a way to predigest our meals so that our compact digestive system (and its bacterial partners)(102) could extract the fuel from the toughest foods. The small abdomen that cooking made possible gave us a mobility our knuckle-walking cousins had never possessed.(103)
According to evolutionary neurobiologist John Skoyles, it also gave us the swiftness of marathon runners.(104) We couldn’t outrace a zebra or an antelope, but we could outlast it in a long-distance run,(105) then could take advantage of the animal’s fatigue to move in for the kill. What’s more, we were the first—and so far, the only—species able to hurl a stone at high velocity with perfect aim.(106) We were pitchers par excellence. We could literally knock a bird out of the sky with a stone or kill a fast-moving rat or rabbit with an overhand toss.(108) Which meant we could hunt small game in ways that claws and fangs had never made possible.
Somewhere along the line we also invented clothing(109) and marched off to the far north,(110) equipped to shield ourselves from winter snow, and ice. We also invented architecture during the ice ages, building palaces with frameworks of mammoth tusks and mammoth ribs and an outer skin made of mammoth hides.(111) And we invented ways to feed two needs that obsess us in a manner few animals will ever know—identity and vanity.(112)
We invented makeup 280,000 years ago(113) to differentiate your tribe from mine and to let you compete for attention with your tribemates, too. We invented long-distance trade(115) 140,000 years ago(116) so that folks in the interior of a continent could show off by wearing jewelry made of sea creatures’ shells(116) and so that coastal dwellers could make tools of obsidian mined far inland.
We invented beads(117) to let each other know who was on top of the tribe’s wealth and who was not.(118) Finally, ten thousand years ago, we invented agriculture(119) and cities.(120) Cities gave birth to subcultures,(121) and the competition between human cultures and subcultures went into overdrive.
Without material breakthroughs, human culture would never have achieved its current heights. In fact, without our host of material inventions—the spear, the plow, the fireplace, the coat, the boat, the brick, the book, and the laptop—we would have grubbed along forever as hunter-gatherers.
Human culture was a dance between material innovations and innovations of the mind. Human culture layered new concepts, new languages, and new forms of data-processing, data-storing, worldview-making, scenario-creating, and future prediction. Human culture worked with the multi-generational stubbornness of the bacteria that built stromatolites.
But instead of constructing physical monuments the size of moons, human cultures built new mind tools—concepts, metaphors, religions, stories, creation myths, tales of legendary heroes, sagas of triumphs and defeats, and entire worldviews(122) — mind tools that from the very first were celestomanic—sky-obsessed, turned to the heavens and the stars. These were new mind tools that could decipher the Earth below and the cosmos slowly wheeling above our heads.
One hundred and twenty five thousand generations of this layering have made us conscious…and have misled us into a peculiar arrogance. We think that we have reshaped this planet more than any creatures that have come before. We think that we have plundered the pitifully small pool of resources on this Earth and now must make sacrifices to appease a nature angered by our transgressions. We are wrong. Very wrong.
(80) Ed Rybicki, PhD, Department of Microbiology. University of Cape Town. How many atoms are in a cell? Biosci/Bionet. (BIOSCI promotes communication between professionals in the biological sciences.) Retrieved June 11, 2007, from the World Wide Web.
(81) James R. Lupski, George M. Weinstock, Frans J. de Bruijn. Bacterial Genomes: Physical Structure and Analysis. New York: Springer, 1998: p. 8.
(82) For more on RNA and DNA as memory-libraries see: Stephen J. Freeland, Robin D. Knight, Laura F. Landweber. Molecular Evolution: Do Proteins Predate DNA? Science, October 22, 1999: Vol. 286. no. 5440: pp. 690 - 692 DOI: 10.1126/science.286.5440.690
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(84) James A. Shapiro. Personal Communication. February 9-September 24, 1999.
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(101) Richard Wrangham, Nancy Lou Conklin-Brittain. Cooking as a biological trait. Comparative Biochemistry & Physiology Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology, September 2003, Vol. 136 Issue 1: pp. 35-47. Richard Wrangham. Personal Communication, March 28, 2004. Natalie Angier. Cooking, and How It Slew the Beast Within. New York Times, May 28, 2002. Retrieved June 1, 2002, from the World Wide Web http://www.nytimes.com/2002/05/28/science/social/28COOK.html?pagewanted=.... For a report on Richard Wrangham’s hypotheses about how cooking helped us eat inedible tubers, poisonous vegetables, see: Elizabeth Pennisi. Did Cooked Tubers Spur the Evolution of Big Brains? Science, Vol 283, Issue 5410, March 26, 1999: pp. 2004-2005.
(102) The Comm Tech Lab and the Center for Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University. The Microbe Zoo DLC ME Project, http://commtechlab.msu.edu/sites/dlc me/zoo/, downloaded September 1999. William B. Whitman, David C. Coleman, and William J. Wiebe. Prokaryotes: The unseen majority. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 95, Issue 12, June 9, 1998: pp. 6578-6583. Richard Gallagher. "Monie a Mickle Maks a Muckle." Science, July 10, 1998: p. 186.
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(107) This is the literal source of the saying, "killing two birds with one stone".
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(109) Certain forms of body lice only live in human clothing. By tracing the remains of these parasites, William J. Burroughs places the date of wearing apparel at 75,000 years ago. William James Burroughs. Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005: p. 133. The most fascinating expert on early human clothing is archaeologist and former fashion industry insider Olga Soffer. For more on her views, see: Kate Wong. The Caveman's New Clothes. Profile Archaeologist Olga Soffer. Scientific American, November 2000, Vol. 283, Issue 5. Retrieved February 28, 2008, from the World Wide Web
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(112) There is identity and vanity among animals. Bower birds build enormous architectural arches to woo mates. Other birds preen their elaborate plumage to get the attention of the girls. And some birds show off their plumage by dancing in ways that even Michael Jackson and Fred Astaire would find hard to outdo. On the identity front, whales sing songs that identify their pods and show who is part of our group and who is not. Fitting into one of these pods—and singing the right melody to prove it—can be a matter of life or death for a young whale. Janet Mann, Richard C. Connor, Peter L. Tyack and Hal Whitehead. Cetacean Societies: Field Studies of Dolphins and Whales. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
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(122) Howard Bloom. The Lucifer Principle: a scientific expedition into the forces of history. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.