To the Tips of its Roots

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“.

Extremophiles at a thermal vent

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.

Cytochrome Nanowires

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.

Lateral transfer on the tree of life

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.

Mycelium underfoot

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.

Swarm intelligence in foraging plant roots

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.

Human tips

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.

Chapter 1 Unlocked


Life is not the life you live,
Nor mind the thoughts you think;
Mind is the course of all thoughts,
Life, the source of all forms.

Releasing thought yields the formless.
Responding to thought bears form,
Form and thought generating each other
As waves on the surface of mind.

Beneath this surface flows life
Ever deeper and more subtle than thought.


What is unusual about this translation? It takes few liberties with the Chinese text, differing only in minor rearrangements of scansion and word choice. It represents a frame for the rest of the poem, an open door between the personal and the universal. But before we walk through that door I should say something about my choices as translator.

I’ll talk in terms of chapters and lines. The Chinese text is not split up this way and in fact contains little punctuation. It has just two chapters each followed by a word count. But traditional chapter and line numbering makes it easier to compare Unlocking with other translations.

  • Line 1, literally Tao that can Tao is not constant/eternal Tao, is harmlessly reversed: Constant/eternal Tao is not Tao that can Tao. The reversal enables me to take advantage of the natural English meaning for unqualified Capital-L Life as the translation of  Constant/eternal Tao.
  • Line 2 follows the form of line 1 in the original Chinese, so also here. The normal translation of ming2 as name or distinction is here rendered as thought, with constant/eternal thought rendered as mind. By thought I mean any representation of form. Information might be a better and more interesting translation if it were not among the least poetic words in English.
  • Lines 3 and 4 are harmlessly reversed.
  • Releasing and responding to thought in iines 5 and 6 are more literally always without intent and always with intent. This translation attempts to reduce “special sauce” words – mystical jargon – here shifting the semantic from the noun to the verb.
  • The formless (miao4) on line 5 is normally rendered as mystery or subtlety.  The original chinese repeats miao4 on the last line and this correpondence is lost, but there is no harm in this and it also helps avoid special sauce.
  • Form and thought, in line 7, are an interpretation of the literal these two. The two could be interpreted as form and formlessness, but we shall see shortly that this would harm the correspondence between chapters 1 and 2. I fear it would also impoverish interpretation of the following 3 lines.
  • Surface, in line 8, is a concept that neatly matches the Chinese description of the two distinct in mind only.
  • It is important to make explicit the word life in the final couplet where it replaces the traditional translation mystery, the formless from line 5. The river motif underpins Lao Tzu and this makes its meaning clear from the outset.

Which is just fine so far as it goes but … why are we here? What is the point? No one cares about Lao Tzu as a puzzlebox; we’re after what’s inside, the secret treasure. Even when a translator pretends to be a dry scholar, that’s what drives the work – the search for enlightenment.

The first chapter of the Tao regards life as a continuum with mind its sensate, reflective surface, life forms as refractive currents flowing within. It posits biology as the fundamental physical process, a liquid living universe through which thought and form propagate in waves.

Is there support in modern biology and physics for such a view, or is it mere mysticism? Next post I’ll blow the dust off chapter 1 by rebasing it on recent science. And I’ll contrast this science with the beautiful but baseless Pale Blue Dot of 20th century Confucian cosmologist Carl Sagan. Stay tuned.

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All excerpts from Unlocking The Tao are copyright © 2011 Peter Merel. Please ask permission before you copy, mirror, or adapt this work.
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