The Eternal Mystery of Life

Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing, that makes it water, and nobody knows what it is.
—D. H. Lawrence, Pansies

D. H. Lawrence’s obvious but highly astute observation applies not just to the mystery of water but to the mystery of all Life on Earth. That the combination of two substances which are gases at ordinary atmospheric temperatures[2] would beget a stable substance that is a liquid or solid at these same temperatures is truly an unfathomable mystery whose mysterious nature is masked by water’s ubiquity, and hence, its unremarkable familiarity, in our daily lives. Water has a number of characteristics that make it a highly unusual substance, such as the fact that, in contrast to the vast majority of substances, its solid state is less dense than its liquid state, which is why ice floats on top of water, instead of sinking to the bottom of a body of water. This, of course, has profound consequences during the winter and in colder regions for the survival of larger organisms that live in bodies of water such as ponds, lakes, seas, and rivers.

Scientists are fond of breaking living organisms down into their chemical compositions or physical processes and reactions. But still, the sum total of any creature, even the smallest creature such as a bacterium, is greater than the total of all these chemical compounds or mechanical processes. From a knowledge of a living creature’s exact chemical, molecular, or genetic composition, one would still not be able to deduce what that creature looks like or how it will behave. The only way to discover these things is by observing it in its natural environment. One could list all the different atoms or molecules of which a certain life form is composed, but at the end of the long list, one would have to add, just as with Lawrence’s observation about water, that “there is also another thing that makes it life, and nobody knows what it is.” After all, the chemical composition of an organism immediately after death is exactly the same as it was just before it died; and yet, prior to its death, it was alive, while afterwards, it has lost this mysterious quality, which we know intimately through daily experience, but do not understand. Each and every one of us is in continual contact with the Miracle and Mystery of Life, and yet, despite this familiarity, its essential, unknowable mysteriousness remains, like an impenetrable fortress. And it is precisely because this mystery is so tantalizingly familiar and proximate that many researchers and scientists believe that they will one day resolve or understand it.

Of course, it is important to add that nobody knows the Secret of Life except God. Although we clever humans have discovered many secrets – the Secret of Chemical Transformation, the Secret of Artificial Light, the Secret of Controlled Combustion, the Secret of Agriculture, the Secret of Nuclear Power, the Secret of Mechanized Flight, the Secret of Genetic Selection and Substitution, the Secret of Producing Artificial Substances, the Secret of Electricity, the Secret of Mechanical Labour, the Secret of Prolonging Life, the Secret of Refining Metal, the Secret of Medicine, the Secret of Distant Communication, the Secret of Magnetic Levitation, the Secret of Combating Disease, and the Secret of Rapid Transportation, among others – we have yet to discover the Secret of Life. Considering how much harm and destruction we have wrought with our other kinds of scientific knowledge, I very much doubt that God would be foolish enough to allow us vain, stupid, disrespectful, and highly irresponsible human beings to discover this other, eternal Secret.

But though we are not able to realize the vision conceived by Mary Shelley and others of creating life from dead or inanimate matter, we have shown ourselves to be extremely adept at destroying life, which, ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we have been doing on larger and larger scales, all the while increasing our frenetic rate of destruction. With the demise of religious belief in many parts of the world, and the consequent elimination of the age-old fear of God and Nature, our dangerously destructive human impulses have been unleashed, to the great detriment of pretty nearly every other life form on the Earth.

Because of his belief in reincarnation, the Buddha taught his followers to revere and treat all life forms with respect, since they may be the reincarnations of former human beings. I do not agree with this belief, however, for I believe that other life forms should be treated with respect simply because they are alive, and because we destructive human beings would never be able to bring them back to life if they were to die or become extinct. Moreover, by acting as if only human beings matter, along with the very small number of other creatures that we cherish and protect, we have greatly upset the Law of Balance, which enables the greatest variety and the greatest amount of life to thrive and flourish on the Earth.

This does not mean, however, that I adhere to a Buddhist doctrine of life, and that one should never kill another living creature. Unlike most plants, all animal life forms must consume other life forms in order to survive. But we should not destroy other life forms wantonly, unnecessarily, or merely for the sake of our convenience, pleasure, or in order to make ourselves richer. With very few exceptions, other animals kill other life forms only in order to consume them and thereby perpetuate their kind. Moreover, they produce no garbage, for everything they produce, including their bodies, shells, urine, and feces, are eventually returned to the earth from which they arose. It is only we supposedly wise and rational human beings that cause the deaths of so many living organisms which we have no intention of consuming. It is hard for many humans to understand just how profoundly unnatural and disrespectful of Nature this is.

The industrial capitalist system is a destructive machine par excellence. As human consumption has become increasingly distanced from the methods that are used to produce the objects of consumption, it has become more and more common for our actions to produce greater and greater devastation to many non-human life forms. Entire forests are cut down to produce cheap paper that is used once and then discarded; a mountain is leveled to extract the metals that are used in a variety of commercial applications, which devastate the environment while polluting the land and water with toxic substances and huge piles of rubble; rivers are dammed to produce electricity, which radically alters the terrain, flooding the land upriver while creating an impenetrable barrier for the creatures that live in the river, and also prevents the nutrient-rich silt from flowing downriver, as it did for millennia before the dam was built; rain forests and other areas of vegetation are burned down to grow monocultures that require the regular application of chemical fertilizers and poisons to kill all other forms of life except the cultivated crop; and the seas and oceans are fished with huge nets that catch and kill every aquatic creature that is caught in their meshes. These, the myopic economists tell us, are good, right, and sensible actions whose range and scope should be expanded without limit in order to benefit humanity, and only humanity, so help us God.

Imagine how outraged we humans would be if the members of another species were to burn our houses, level our cities, and pollute our land, air, and water; or if they were to hunt us for sport or catch entire local human populations for food while discarding those, such as babies and the elderly, that are not worth the trouble of preparing for their consumption or because they do not find them appetizing. And yet, this is what we thoughtlessly and selfishly do, on a regular basis in more and more parts of the world, to the innumerable other species that live in forests, rivers, lakes, mountainsides, and other places that are devastated by our selfish actions.

In losing our reverence for the eternal mystery of all Life, and not just human life, which reverence is possessed by so-called primitive peoples, we have not become more civilized, as many of us mistakenly believe; we have become clever, immoral, and utterly depraved monsters who think nothing of devastating and destroying other life forms in order to satisfy our appetites, while increasing our petty human wealth, which often requires impoverishing, polluting, and destroying the natural world from which it is derived.

If humanity is to survive, then we urgently need to free ourselves from our present unhealthy obsession with ourselves, and root ourselves once more in Nature, as our ancestors were firmly rooted in the past.

It seems to me many people had such experiences [of natural grandeur] before we entered into an industrial way of life. The universe, as manifestation of some primordial grandeur, was recognized as the ultimate referent in any human understanding of the wonderful yet fearsome world about us. Every being achieved its full identity by its alignment with the universe itself. With indigenous peoples of the North American continent every formal activity was first situated in relation to the six directions of the universe, the four cardinal directions combined with the heavens above and the Earth below. Only thus could any human activity be fully validated.[3]

As more and more of the world’s human population has moved from rural areas, where Nature is daily present in the inhabitants’ lives, to artificial urban areas, where Nature is largely excluded except in small, strictly controlled doses, many of us have become unanchored; and like a drifting, unmoored ship, we have consequently become attached to the extremely destructive model of constant technological progress and economic growth, an attachment that will lead to our destruction if we do not change our ways.

It is my belief that, if our species is to survive for the long term, for more than just a few fleeting centuries into the future, we must regain the reverence for all life forms which our ancestors had, but which many of us have lost because of our scientific arrogance, our belief that we occupy a special, privileged place in the evolutionary ladder and the natural world, and our very foolish belief in our species’ unlimited technological abilities and knowledge. For it is precisely our unquestioning belief in the twin human demons of science, technology, and economics that has so greatly upset the primordial Law of Balance, which disastrous imbalance threatens not only the survival of a great many of the Earth’s other living species, but, if we are only wise enough to see it, also our own.

[1] Quoted in Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan, Part II: Water. Penguin, New York, 2013.

[2] The temperature at which hydrogen becomes a liquid is –253°C, and the temperature at which it solidifies is –259°C, while for oxygen these temperatures are –183°C and –218°C. Of course, the respective temperatures for water are 100°C and 0°C.

[3] The Great Work: Our Way into the Future by Thomas Berry, p. 14. Bell Tower, New York, 1999.