There has been no greater conceit in the history of science than Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, a paean to an image taken at his request by the Voyager 1 spacecraft beyond the orbit of Saturn.
“A mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,
the Earth is the only world so far known to harbour life.”
Sagan was a champion for the cause of critical thought. His tenets famously require extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. Applying that to his dot, however, there is no evidence for the existence of matter that is not actively engaged in cycles of life. Everywhere we look, on every scale and timeframe, we find signs of life. Sagan’s assertion that life inhabits isolated pockets in an otherwise dead universe is, to use his word, “baloney“.
At the bottom of the sea, completely hidden from sunlight, vast moving forests feed on superheated volcanic vents. Life thrives inside antarctic ice, in soda and salt lakes, in pools of concentrated acid and toxic arsenic. Individual microbes live after 34,000 years locked in a salt crystal. At the deepest depth of the Earth’s crust there are creatures that literally breathe rock in populations so immense they outweigh all lifeforms on the surface. There is no reason to assume these deep life-forms evolved from surface forms, and biologists suggest that all rocky bodies are infected with them.
Microbial communities collaborate to respond to their environment using chemical senses and nanoscopic interspecies electronic networks. We don’t know what information flows through these networks but we have no reason to suppose they are rare, nor that they are disconnected from the signaling and metabolic networks of larger organisms that host them.
Microbes swap pieces of their DNA to communicate their behavior. This lateral gene transfer is so commonplace biologists no longer regard microbes as truly possessed of an attribute of species. Even single communities of bacteria like E. Coli display enormous genetic diversity, any 2 individuals differing by as much as 40% of their genome. And lateral gene transfer isn’t limited to microbes. Their genes jump to the genomes of multi-celled forms, including humans.
On Earth microbial communities are embedded in networks of fungus, single organisms many miles wide. Far from independent of other species, this mycelium actively transports essential nutrients between otherwise unrelated species of plant. Mycelia are fast moving and responsive, springing up within footprints of animals to scavenge disturbed bracken. They are long lived, with single organisms propagating multispecies forests over periods of millenia.
Since Darwin it has been understood that plants in their turn possess an intelligence in networks of cells at the very tips of their roots. Each tip senses 15 distinct physical parameters and there are millions of root tips per plant. These are observed actively foraging for nutrients and moving with swarm intelligence in the manner of colonies of insects. Biologists compare them with animal brains.
It seems inevitable that we conclude conventional distinctions between organisms are artefacts of a limited understanding, merely the visible surface of a dynamic and continuous web of living awareness. Yet as humans we each feel ourselves to be individual and uniquely valuable. We get proud and lonely. Even in a crowd, even in our deepest relationships, we feel apart like Sagan’s dot. How can we participate in the deeper reality?
Lao Tzu chapter one sets experience on a human scale in a cosmic context. It perceives life as a river of unfathomable extent and depth, mind a scale-symmetric surface generated by the non-local interplay of thought and form, and ourselves and the stars fractal ripples upon it. This first chapter lights a path leading away from Sagan’s concept of fragile intelligence alone in deserted darkness, accidental “star stuff“. As we shall see shortly, the continuum of life is not confined to Earth, and even the darkness between worlds is an illusion.