March 7, 2013
So, who’s the cute little teddy-robot, and how did he lose his head?
Well, if you follow APOD, then you know that this is an electron micrograph of a tardigrade, or water bear — that is, a living creature on this living Earth. This one was observed on a piece of moss.
The tardigrade is one of those creatures most likely to survive well beyond the anthropocene era of our world. If and when we destroy ourselves — via human-induced climate change, global nuclear war, or some combination thereof — animals such as the tardigrade will find their way along without us. The tardigrade can live at extremes of temperature, pressure, and dehydration; it can withstand levels of radiation that would be lethal to most life forms; it has survived in outer space and can repair its own DNA.
Fans of Star Trek and the Prime Directive may squirm a little at the idea of shooting life forms out into space to either slowly die or perhaps land on some random planetoid to initialize a random evolutionary sequence. I’d bet, in fact, that some…uh…enterprising sci-fi writer has already scripted a tale of a tardigrade population on a probe landing on a planet or asteroid, encountering some subspace anomaly amid the journey, and hyper-morphing (and perhaps time-traveling) into an inter-planetary race of beings that leave their new planet and return home to wreak havoc and threaten a premature end to the anthropocene era.
As diverting as such a fantasy may be, I’d like to think a little about that other, and very real ability, of the tardigrade: the capacity to repair its DNA. If I were an actual scientist, a biologist, that’s something I’d want to study long and hard for its potential as a model we could follow in promoting health in the individual and survival within our species. In fact, I have a feeling that it’s something we could do on our own, without having to wait for a scientific miracle to be fabricated in a research laboratory or pharmaceutical plant.
DNA is one of those phenomena of Nature that can be experienced (and therefore conceived) both materially and ideationally. That is, we can see it as “stuff” — physical molecules composed of nucleotides — or as information, data, cosmic thought. In fact, it appears essential to equally maintain both perspectives on DNA; just as physicists need to work with the phenomenon of light as both photon particles and wave-forms. Even casual observers like myself are aware that the DNA of all life-forms that we know about is defined as much by its peculiar shape as by its chemical composition. That is, a relative abstraction such as shape (the famous double-helix) is as definitive to the DNA of an organism as a planet’s orbit — its relation to other spatial bodies in its movement through the space-time continuum — is to its existence within a galaxy. Nature abhors entropy.
One primary lesson of sciences like quantum mechanics, relativity theory, and microbiology would appear to involve our need to surpass mechanical thinking. As the old saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything you encounter is perceived as a nail. One area where our technology is now taking us is a place populated by much more than mere nails. We are just reaching a perspective that lets us see the quantum, the micro reflected in and influencing the macro. Computers that will be able to employ quantum processors are already being tested; and a few experiments have been run on storing and retrieving computer-generated data into and from live DNA.
What I sense in this is a third level of perception and meaning. Again, phenomena like light and DNA can be conceived as both substance and data; as particle and wave; as matter and energy; as form and formlessness. But we can’t and won’t succeed, in science or in life, by jumping back and forth between these two poles of sense and meaning. We need a third level of awareness that allows us to embrace and surpass the polar, the dual, the realm of opposites. We do not have to wait for scientists to show us how to reach this level of perception, this orbit of self-understanding. We must experience it for ourselves.
Let’s return to that micro-macro relationship: it is fairly well established, using standard scientific research methodologies, that DNA can be damaged by both physical and psychological stimuli. In children, neglect and emotional abuse can harm DNA in the same way as physical abuse and environmental toxins. The functional effect is similar to that seen in aging: as a reaction to psychological and/or physical stress, critical structural components of DNA can be made to change as if they’re being subjected to aging. I would argue that, at least to some extent, the process is reversible.
It has been my experience that every effective therapy is able to call upon that primordial ability of creatures like the tardigrade — the capacity for repairing damaged DNA. Such repair can be manifestly physical (drugs or other physical medical intervention) or noumenal (self-therapy, talk therapy, meditation, or other forms of non-physical treatment). In terms of psychological therapy, I think it’s a matter of bringing oneself or another to that third level of self-understanding, in which body and mind are held together and then raised to a fresh plane of experience that includes and surpasses both. This is also true, by the way, of working with physical therapies as well: I can work with the “consciousness” of a drug (and certainly of those who deliver it to me) and thereby discover a greater therapeutic benefit from it than I might by seeing it as a mere mechanical intervention.
Our sciences have an unpleasant impulse to deny or even demonize such an experience. That “placebo effects” occur in nearly every form of therapeutic research is well known — often with an alarming statistical frequency. We have to stop being embarrassed by this phenomenon and start understanding it. The sooner we begin, the faster we will progress.
It’s not a matter of either/or: we obviously don’t have to abandon Newtonian physics; mechanical models of anatomy; or traditional models of logic. But if we’re to overcome the challenges posed to us by phenomena like quantum mechanics, relativity, and genetics; then we’ll have to reach a clearer plane of perception — both of ourselves and our world.
Check out the biographies of some of the scientists featured in the recent New York Times story about the discovery of the Higgs boson. Artists, musicians, students of Eastern “mysticism” who became scientists leading what is arguably the most significant scientific discovery of a generation. Do you imagine it’s a random coincidence that people with such backgrounds were drawn into this transformational story of scientific breakthrough?
So I’m merely saying that we can have the same experience, reach the same level of transformative possibility within our own lives. Healing is as primordially natural to our species as destruction appears compulsive to our institutions. That capacity for repairing our DNA is a gift of our evolution, going at least as far back as the Cretaceous-era descendants of today’s tardigrade. The problem, the challenge, and the opportunity all lie in trusting that primordial ability and then using it in a modern way: we will have to learn how to hold that primordial within a presence of potential.
Why should it be so strange? Our model can be those two helical strands that wind around the same axis to create the perfect shape and synergy that is, so far as we know, the universal molecular foundation of all life. Our knowledge can only become understanding when it achieves that third level of a surpassing awareness.