I’m a proud homo sapien, as you no doubt are, and though I’ve only been around for a few measly decades, I have little shame in claiming the title of Master of Species as if I’d earned it myself, crawling out of the primordial ooze millions of years ago. The view is rosy at the top of food chain, and it’s nice not to have to share.
Darwin was one of the first to diagram life’s diversity over the ages. Ernst Haeckel filled it out a smidgen, and though women are no where to be found in his genealogy, “Man” sits mightily upon the highest branch.
But life evolves without a pause. And in a plot twist worthy of Sophoclean tragedy, our voracious quest for knowledge is precisely what has dethroned us. Last week, the journal of Nature Microbiology published an updated “Tree of Life”, upending our anthropocentric self placement, and revealing who the true Masters of Life are on earth: bacteria. Bacteria, and their simpler, singled-celled cousins, archaea, and eukaryotes, whose cells house a nucleus, make up more than two thirds of the life forms on our blue green planet. Far, far less that one third are multi-cellular, meaning us.
Hominids are relative newcomers in comparison to the eons and eons of survival bacteria have endured: an awesome feat in lieu of the fact that ninety-nine percent of all species that have thrived here– roughly five billion species– have gone extinct. The fact is, the majority of our world’s biodiversity is still, and has always been, unknown to us. And what we do know is invariably filtered through an extremely self-serving (and myopic) lens. (See De Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?)
Our discoveries into the microscopic are often prompted by mysterious outbreaks, like Elizabethkingia Anophelis, found in river water and reservoir soils, which recently claimed twenty plus lives in the Midwest. Bacteria rule, and fortunately, they aren’t all bad. Our bodies host a multitude of them in our stomachs, intestines, eyelids– in a sustained symbiosis.
And when all of our advanced weaponry failed to halt the Martian onslaught in H.G. Wells War Or The Worlds, it was a few brave bacteria that saved the day. Martians had no immunity to our multitudinous infectious microbes, and were “…slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.”
In Henry IV pt 1, a dying Hotspur laments his corpse becoming “food for worms.” But this is a fate we must now wholeheartedly embrace, as it is the beginning of reentering the chain at the most fundamental and dominant level. For this reason alone, I insist on being buried naked. The faster I can return to the true top of the phylogenetic tree, the better.