20 December 2012


There is a Peruvian deity, painted on a clay pot dating from around A.D. 300, believed to be responsible for guarding farms. His hair is made of snakes, entwined in braids, with wings for his headdress. Plants of various kinds are growing out of his sides and back, and a vegetable of some sort seems to be growing out of his mouth. The whole effect is wild and disheveled but essentially friendly. He is, in fact, an imaginary version of a genuine animal...a species of weevil in the mountains of northern New Guinea that lives symbiotically with dozens of plants, growing in the niches and clefts in its carapace, rooted all the way down in its flesh, plus a whole ecosystem of mites, rotifers, nematodes and bacteria attached to the garden.
-- from 'Some biomythology' in Lives of a Cell (1974) by Lewis Thomas.

There is a tendency, Thomas concluded, "for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other...get along, wherever possible." 

His point is  supported by recent discoveries regarding the microbiome. As Carl Zimmer writes in When you swallow a hand grenade, this is an interdependence we’ve been evolving for 700 million years, ever since our early animal ancestors evolved bodies that bacteria could colonize. Even jellyfish and sponges have microbiomes.

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