It is easy, looking around us, to believe that humans are the pinnacle of evolution, the masters of the world.
We have developed tools with which we have spilt atoms, put probes on other planets and cured diseases amongst many thousands of other incredible achievements. We drive to work in super-efficient cars, take calls on mobile phones with processing power undreamt of a few years ago and communicate instantly with people on the other side of the world. We have no natural predators and regularly decimate whole groups of animals for food, medicine or just sport.
From this perspective, it is easy to see why we may think God created us in His own image. Why wouldn’t he, we’re the best, right? We are His children as surely as the sky is blue.
Well, let me tell you about my family. Some of these wonderful individuals are not all blood relatives, but such long-term associates I might think of them as brothers and sisters.
We get up in the morning like everyone else. When I say we, I really mean I get up and lift the trillions of them up with me with negligible effort. The bacteria in my gut, mouth, on my skin, even swimming in the fluid of my eye. We’re one big happy family. Mostly. As long as they stay in the right place and don’t go on day trips to parts of my body they are not meant to (a little like my brother not going in my bedroom when we were young).
Bacteria from the gut getting into the bloodstream is potentially pretty miserable.
Once up, I would kiss my children and, metaphorically, their equally agreeable symbiotic microscopic partners which keep them healthy, and stroke my cats, again riddled with their own bacteria.
Bacteria are prevalent in every corner of world, far more widely spread than us humans. They are ancient and often staggeringly hardy, inhabiting not only the environments we’ve so proudly conquered, but also those completely inhospitable to us; hot acidic undersea vents, deep earth crust, even radioactive waste containers and the vacuum of the surface of the moon.
But they also inhabit every part of our lives. More to the point, without them, we, both individually and collectively, would die very rapidly. They are key to cycles that facilitate life, such as the carbon and nitrogen cycles. Take into account that our own body cells possibly evolved including the absorption of bacteria countless eons ago as the mitochondria that generate ATP that powers our cells; it appears bacteria are absolutely central and critical to our existence.
Compared to bacteria, we are fragile, short-lived, conservative, unadventurous organisms. And when viewed in this manner, it seems somewhat presumptuous to believe that any deity actually favours us over bacteria. Or fungi. Or insects (loads of those). Or viruses.
We humans number seven billion (less than the number of bacteria on a single person), live for only about 80 years (many microbes can hibernate nearly indefinitely) and are totally reliant on other flora and fauna we are barely aware of just to survive.
And so many of those tiny organisms can kill us so easily. In return, we’ve managed to wipe out smallpox (except for those kept in military labs for use in bio-warfare when it may yet again spread across the earth). However, we can’t even counter the common cold virus, the flu virus still kills many people every year and malaria holds whole continents in its grip.
So are we God’s children, made in his image to inherit the Earth with dominion over all other living creatures?
Evidence suggests otherwise. Dinosaurs, surely the macroscopic masters of their eras, were practically wiped from the face of the planet, but the bacteria and their little microbe friends survived as they have from some of the earliest times of life.
It seems we are transitory, both as individuals and most likely as species if history is anything to go by. But when we are gone (ice age, meteor impact, lethal virus), it’s a safe bet the bacteria will still be around.
If we are to stand any chance of living longer than the millions of species who have gone extinct before us, maybe we should stop looking to Heaven, and start looking to the heavens. Maybe there is a future for us (and our extended microscopic families) in the cosmos; the future is so exciting and so full of potential, but it is something we will need to explore together, not wait for salvation to be handed to us by some supernatural being, otherwise he might just send his seemingly favourite bacteria off, possibly to join some others of them that may already be out there.
• One of our newest contributors, Bob Sampson, studied Theoretical Physics at Exeter with a scholarship from the Army before eventually ending up in IT as a systems, security and network architect and currently the head of IT for a major UK property group.
His passion is “all thing science, but especially maths and physics”. A “humanist at heart” for as long as he can recall, he is currently the new webmaster for the Chiltern Humanists.
His wife Sarah is a doctor of child developmental psychology and a fellow humanist.
Bob dedicates this first article for the Freethinker to his brother Guy, a biology teacher and head of science “and someone I’ve always suspected (as any brother would) has more than his fair share of bacteria”.