If you like science and want to read more about it, you should be reading Nautilus. And if you like Nautilus, you should subscribe to its quarterly for more unique writing.
I’m spending my Saturday morning flipping through it and there’s a beautiful essay by Caspar Henderson on the current frontiers of our knowledge.
Here are a few reminders of just how little we know:
Working memory and episodic memory are widespread among animals, as are social inclinations born of environmental pressures that favor their evolution. The distinction between cognition and emotion is also increasingly seen as a false one. Crows and other members of the corvid family have self-awareness and a theory of mind. Octopuses can solve some problems as well as 3-year-old children, not to mention perform feats of dexterity far beyond the scope of humans. Chimpanzees grieve for non-related individuals, and records of their reactions to stimuli such as a majestic waterfall and the birth of a baby chimp suggest that they may be capable of a sense of wonder.
The microbiologist Lynn Margulis was rejected by about 15 leading journals before her pathbreaking paper on symbiosis was published in 1967. She argued that the complex cells of protists, plants, and animals resulted from earlier and simpler organisms merging and cooperating. The ancestors of chloroplasts and mitochondria, the organelles in plants and animal cells that provide them energy, were once free-living bacteria that larger organisms then swallowed. But instead of becoming lunch, the bacteria took up residence, like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Unlike Jonah, however, they paid for their keep by performing a new role as ‘batteries.’
Today the evidence for Margulis’s theory of endo-symbiosis, as it has become known, is overwhelming. The physician and essayist Lewis Thomas captured the essential point in an essay published in the 1970s, proposing “some biomythology.” A bestiary for modern times, he argued, should be a micro-bestiary, since microbes teach us an essential lesson: “There is a tendency for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other, return to earlier arrangements, get along whenever possible.”
And finally this intriguing thought:
If extraterrestrial life does exist, how “weird” might it be? The adjective can be used in a semi-precise way to mean any life form with which, unlike everything we know of on Earth, we do not share a common ancestor. On the principle that life can evolve or endure where there is a flow of energy to be harvested, one of the most statistically likely places is in the vicinity of white dwarf stars common enough objects in the universe—where collisions with dark matter will continue to provide a steady trickle of energy until the universe is 10^25 years old, or about 10,000 trillion times long as it took life to appear on Earth. Life on these stars, if it were to exist, would have a very slow metabolism and rate of consciousness, taking 1,000 years to complete a single thought.
Give it a read; you will definitely learn something new.