William B. Miller, Jr. M.D. *
We live in an irreligious age. For the first time in our history, the majority of Americans do not regularly attend a worship service or have any official religious affiliation. The trend is called the rise of the “nones”, meaning those people who check the box for “none” on surveys of religious affiliation. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-number-of-americans-with-no-religious-affiliation-is-rising/) Curiously, this phenomenon does not explicitly equate with a substantial rise in atheism. Instead, a 2017 Pew research poll indicates that the loss of traditional religious values reflects a drift toward a wide range of alternative spiritual movements. Surprisingly, many who declare themselves atheists insist that their existence continues after death. Contrarily, Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, notes that about one-quarter of the population has no belief in any existence after death and wonders how those people will find meaning in life.
Consequently, it is not surprising that existential angst is the norm in popular culture, especially among millennials. (https://sisyphuslitmag.org/2019/11/has-my-generation-taken-existentialism-to-the-next-level/). As a result, pervasive anxiety has permeated our culture. Although many circumstances contribute to this disquiet, there is no doubt that a sense of life’s impermanence often governs melancholy thoughts. What if nothing matters? Going through life struggling toward a set of conventional milestones makes no sense if you’re “here today, gone tomorrow” and there is no identifiable purpose in life.
Unexpectedly, science now teaches that those were yesterday’s concerns. Recent research in biology declares that each of us leaves a permanent individual imprint on the planet, creating an indelible signature through our series of living connections. As a result, we are all crucial and perpetual participants in the narrative of our living planet. Even more amazingly, that influence extends beyond our planet into the cosmos. This insight is not New Age spirituality. These are reasoned conclusions based on exacting science.
Two recent crucial scientific advances were necessary to reach these remarkable insights. First, our perspective on conscious intelligence has dramatically shifted over the last several years. Until recently, most scientists believed that only humans were conscious and capable of intelligent volitional actions. This assumption seemed obvious since no animal performs as we do on tests, we had previously devised to determine intelligence. Based on these flawed tests, we consistently misinterpreted the intelligent lives of all of our planetary companions. However, more creative, and realistic analysis proves that all living creatures are intelligent in unique ways. No one with a dog or cat believes their pet is simply a living robot reacting to stimuli. Their inner lives are self-evident. It seems strange to us now that generations of cognitive scientists believed differently. What decades of research has taught us is that there is no one type of intelligence, only different forms of intelligence (https://www.mdpi.com/2079-3200/8/3/28). As discomfiting as it may seem, plants are also highly intelligent and self-aware, raising many ethical questions. (https://academic.oup.com/aob/article/125/1/11/5575979)
The common denominator of this intelligence is that all living organisms are highly competent problem-solving agents. The same gap that impaired our correct assessment of intelligence is those creatures that we can directly observe has also prejudiced our understanding of basic cells. Scientists had long assumed that each of our cells acted like tiny automatic bots. Modern scientific evidence contradicts this prior arbitrary viewpoint. All cells are intelligent at their scale. Every one of our cells is a competent problem-solving agent in constant communication with an enormous network of companion cells. Cells lead active social lives and have their forms of experiences.
Anthropologist Jeremy Narby confronted this issue of our intelligent cells when analyzing slime molds that spend much of their lives as single cells but become an integrated collective multicellular organism under stress. Noted that slime molds are clever enough to solve mazes efficiently, he concluded, “We struggle over words when the slime mold solves the maze, because our concepts don’t fit the data. It is not that nature lacks intelligence, but that our own concepts do.” (Be Smart. “Are You Smarter Than A Slime Mold?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8HEDqoTPgk). What is equally astounding is that this cellular intelligence directly applies to all cellular microbes. Yes, that’s right. Germs. These germ cells are all competent problem-solving, flexible, social organisms.
The second major advance is an entirely new conception of what it means to be an organism like us. We are not the singular entities that we believe ourselves to be. We now understand that we are ‘superorganisms’. (http://www.themicrocosmwithin.com/) Each of us is a vast assembly of personal body cells and an astronomically large number of partnering microbes termed our microbiome. Estimates suggest that well over 100 trillion cells combine to make us as organisms. Scientists used to believe that our body was shielded from microbes with only a small population in our intestines coming from food. We now understand that there are trillions of microbes in us and on us, inhabiting every organ of our body, contributing crucial metabolites, and helping to maintain our immune system. Consequently, it is no longer a matter of looking at our bodies and partnering microbes as ‘us’ and ‘them’. Instead, a modern conception of ourselves is as a consensual ‘we’. All our cells, of all types, are seamlessly working together to make a functioning living organism.
Our permanent place on the planet derives from this partnership. All of our intelligent cells are in constant communication. Our body cells are conversing with each other and constantly communicating with our microbiome. This back and forth ‘chatter’ is what sustains us. Crucially, this is intelligent communication.
Individual self-aware cells combine to permit the unique intelligence that defines each of us. We are their collective product, even though we don’t feel it. That’s the magical complexity of biology. Of the utmost significance, this information transfer is reciprocal. Our collective intelligence gets shared with our individually intelligent cells. Frankly, no one knows exactly how much of our human type of intelligence is capable of being shared with the microscopic realm of our cells, but it is not negligible.
You establish your involuntary planetary footprint because you leave an invisible trail of these intelligent, competent cells at all times. A combination of your body cells and your microbiome is continuously shed. The number of these dispersed cells is substantial, even if invisible. Billions separate from you every day. They surround you like a cloud and settle everywhere you go. This trail is by no means conjectural; it is exactly how bloodhounds can unerringly track a human over great distance, even weeks later. They follow our living signature and the molecules produced by our cells. These cells aren’t just debris on the ground. They enter the various environmental ecologies as interconnecting participants as we sit, stand, and travel. Parts of us continuously enter an entire planetary connectome of intelligent communicating cells. Some of our cells continue to do that even after we die, called our necrobiome, which also enters planetary ecology.
Your permanent connection to the cosmos is not as direct, but just as real. The primary pathway is also based on your cells and their specific properties. Our senses, such as vision, hearing, and smell, all rely on a set of physical principles that relate to quantum mechanics. For example, our vision depends on cells that can perceive even a single photon of light based on specific quantum coherences and entanglements. Quantum mechanics is a complex field that few truly understand, but rigorous experiments have proved that it is a hidden aspect of fundamental reality. Physical objects such as atoms and even molecules connect through coherences and entanglements over incredible distances. Research indicates that we rely on these quantum mechanisms for many body processes. A principle in quantum mechanics indicates that if quantum entanglement is demonstrated in one instance within a system, it operates in all other circumstances. This relationship means that if we are connected through entanglements in our body, then it is justified to believe these same entanglements are a universal property. Everything is connected across the planet, and it is just as likely that they are throughout the cosmos; we just don’t sense it.
However, beyond quantum mechanisms, there is a further indisputable form of existing cosmic connection that has been established by humans, and surprisingly, this pathway receives very little attention. We clever humans have engineered spacecraft that are now hurtling away from Earth. Among these, for instance, the Voyager 1 and II space probes launched in 1977 are now just starting to exit the heliosphere, where the sun’s influence tails off in our solar system. Both of these travel with invisible companions. Large numbers of microbes accompany these spacecrafts. In the past, substantial efforts were made to prevent this earthly contamination, but we now understand that our previous earnest attempts were insufficient. Crucially, many of these microbes are equipped to survive in space despite radiation levels or temperature extremes that no human can withstand for seconds. Some can enter a dormant state and survive thousands of years. All these microbes are intelligent, and all of them have been in contact with human engineers. Since everything on Earth is connected through this living intelligence, these microbial pioneers have become our living messengers, for better or worse. They may not be like us in any way we fathom, but they contain a part of our intelligence as long as they survive.
Now that science reveals that we do indeed leave a permanent signature on the planet that entails a further cosmic impact, what should our reaction be? Whether or not it affects your spiritual stance is a personal issue. What we’re talking about here is science, not metaphysics. Every individual has the privilege of deciding whether this knowledge stimulates their faith or reinforces its absence. Nevertheless, the evidence establishes that you have a form of continued existence. It may not match religious expectations, but it is nonetheless material and tangible. Consequently, your life has meaning since you have individually contributed to the living continuum that our planet represents, which has mandated cosmic reverberations.
If your life has meaning and you are creating lasting messages, how should that impact your living choices? Again, that choice travels through your cells. Our intelligent cells in their trillions make you ‘you’. Just as they are a part of you, reciprocally, you are part of them. They have experienced you, and part of you is instilled in them. Your motivations are a product of their behaviors and requirements. Commensurately, your living choices imprint on them, becoming part of your living signature.
What, then should your living choices be? Your cells have a valuable lesson to teach in this regard. You exist because your tens of trillions of cells are in harmony with one another to such an extent that you feel like a single being. They accomplish this by following a set of living rules that have enabled cells to survive continuously on this turbulent planet for billions of years. Cells coexist through collaboration, cooperation, willing co-dependence, and the voluntary trading of resources. Of course, cells also compete. However, among cells, that competition is generally directed toward mutual advantage. Cancer is so destructive precisely because it doesn’t conform to this essential pattern.
Cells also exhibit two further and paramount living features. First, they maintain their living compact by consistently sustaining each other’s self-integrity. Cells resist subordination which is their key to successful collaborative life. Their second living principle is the one that represents the common glue that enables how trillions of cells to work together and still maintain their individual equilibrium. How do cells accomplish something that often eludes humans? Their individual and collective actions rigorously adhere to a consistent dictum: you serve yourself best by serving others. This basic cellular code of conduct enables your living framework.
Our partnering cells do best when we are in personal balance. Diminished stress enhances our health and well-being and translates into advantaged cellular metabolic pathways that sustain our partnering cells. We lower our stress levels by following cellular rules. When we do that, we sustain ourselves best because we are supporting all of our body’s cellular ecologies. As a collective of cells, we humans are also an ecological form. Accordingly, our living choices intersect with all the other ecologies we contact through our inevitable living presence across the planet. Each of us is a vital part of an immensity of living connections. Respecting those connections means doing our best to live according to cellular principles since these are the time-tested rules that enable our living form. We enhance our well-being by following these guideposts and that ramifies to all the other ecologies we contact.
There is no question that humans have been gifted a unique planetary position. However, all privileges warrant countervailing responsibilities. Necessarily, we must accept our dominant role in planetary oversight. With our determination to explore the universe, we must also acknowledge an unexpected obligation to exert cosmic stewardship. Certainly, our desire to explore the universe can be seen as a worthy goal. Yet, if our choices remain committed to the aggressive exploration of space, it should be conducted in unabridged acquiescence that we carry an inevitable cosmic impact anywhere that we or our proxy’s transit.
Just as the ancients intuited, we form a consequential part of a perpetual circle of life. We each leave our permanent imprint on the planet. We have a place in the cosmos. Make of it what you will. However, as you consider it, accept that there is one overriding certainty. It is not a matter of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ for any of us. You leave a material, lasting signature of your living choices no matter what you intend. What that contribution fully means is up to you.
*Evolutionary Biologist. Author of BIOVERSE