Friday, May 23, 2008

"Life, in short, just wants to be"

These memorable words are from Bill Bryson's A short history of nearly everything:

It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of all the intoxicating existence we've been endowed with. But what's life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours-arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don't. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment's additional existence. Life, in short, just wants to be. But-and here's an interesting point-for the most part it doesn't want to be much. [Bold emphasis added].

As I recall, in that chapter, Bryson gives many examples of organisms -- life -- that exist and thrive in unthinkable environments: hot, cold, acidic, dark, etc. The Scientific American website has a story about a recent discovery of an extremophile species:

... Based on genetic analysis, [this extremophile] appears to be a type of archaea—a single-celled organism similar to but distinct from bacteria.

The microbe lives about a mile below the ocean floor, in temperatures ranging between 140 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. There they munch on methane and other hydrocarbons. They thus beat all previous sub-seafloor-life records for extreme conditions—twice as deep, twice as hot, and in sediment three times as ancient, more than 110 million years old. ...


  1. Anonymous said...

    Although I've only read part of it, I absolutely love that book. Need to buy it soon.

    Also, this reminded me of a quote from one of my favourite fantasy/fiction series, the Bartimaeus trilogy, where the lead character says, "purpose is a human concept. We never needed that before."

    I think it's very easy to misunderstand ideas, when we anthropomorphize and try to apply our human concepts to other lifeforms.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Good post. Perhaps you may be interested in this link on survivors of recent earthquake in China: At one place it says, “Peng Guohua, a miner, survived 170 hours by eating clean toilet paper and drinking his own urine, Xinhua said citing unidentified military sources. He was in stable condition”. Peng Guohua (or for that matter none of us) would not have imagined that in normal everyday life. Perhaps there is one philosophical lesson in all these: Misery is not as miserable as we imagine it to be.