The Pages of The Book of Life
Plato said that there were two ways to destroy an artisan, either by paying too little or too much for his work. Evolution is a munificent destroyer and has blindly used both means. It ensures that no bad trait is unrewarded or no good trait unpunished. Amongst the extant primitive life forms are the RNA viruses like HIV and influenza, which have no significant mechanisms of correcting replication errors. The virus particles are the sole parent of their frequently mutated progeny, destined to perish. This abominable curse which every parent dreads, becomes a saving grace, as out of a myriad mistakes some viable Clark Kents grow up to be resistant Superbugs, invincibly battling immune systems and antiviral drugs, to sweep the battlefield of the host, with their hordes of marauding triumphant clones. They have been forced to choose a short but glorious and adventurous life like Achilles, but cannot escape their mortality, for their single helixes were not dipped in the Styx and thus remain vulnerable.
Many pages turn and now the bacteria have evolved a new currency of genetics called DNA and a protein enzyme which sits at the scene of action, watching the till, to see that nobody rings up the cash register to pilfer or give wrong change. These bacteria whose idle mind is the ultimate devil's workshop and who have been granted partial immortality, but are still looking for the fountain of youth, go and invent conjugation or intercourse without sexual differentiation and this is where Milton would have begun 'Paradise Lost', if he had only known. The algae have been generating the toxic pollutant oxygen, till it pervades the earth and corrodes everything and thus evolve the first tax lawyers, who survive by finding aerobic loopholes in the then governing laws of life on earth and set the scene for the first merger (as used by Mark Ridley and first proposed by Lynn Margulis) of two organisms by a hostile acquisition of one by another, to form a new type of a behemoth called a 'marine' eukaryote. This follower of Nietzsche has the life motto that whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger. It learns to live, utilize and become dependent on the former toxin, viz. oxygen. One person's food is truly another's poison.
A few pages turn in the book of life and a new chapter begins. The coiled serpents constituting the staff of Hermes, the messenger par excellence of the Gods have come into existence and to the devotees are known as the double helixes. Their replications are like the motto of the marines, Semper Fidelis or always faithful. Errorless replication is the desired goal to aim for, but the real irony is, that if the copying apparatus of genes had made no mistake or oversight during reproduction, then there would be no variation for natural selection to act on and evolution would come to a standstill. Truly consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds and because replication erred, we humans are there and not to forgive is the amoral position of natural selection. Different sets of values have been engulfed to form the first, faithful disciplined, replicator 'marine' eukaryote.
A whole section of the book flips forward with time and now there are non-commissioned and commissioned officers to police and monitor and keep the eukaryote cells in file and form platoons, companies, battalions and corps. These new players on the stage are the multi-cellular organisms. The training and discipline plus the unifying motto of the musketeers, one for all and all for one, makes each platoon a formidable cohesive unit destined to survive long and overcome others, but deny it the rapid maneuverability for change in tactics. Unifying a bunch of individuals into a symphonic orchestra runs the risk of some rebel lone ranger galloping to his own drumbeat to create discord, cacophony and disaster. This is what the over generous compensation of evolution does. The boon of plentiful growth due to faithful replication repeatedly performed over a long period of time, gives rise to the curse of a greedy, selfish, cancerous, renegade cell, and the demise of the whole platoon by its betrayal of trust. The first case shows how disability comes to the rescue and the second shows how the ad infinitum overuse of any ability, gives birth to the Nemesis.
These two case histories are an irony comparable to the meeting of two Russian apparatchiks, one a supporter and the other, an opponent of a previous Stalin, who both end up in the same gulag after traveling distinctly opposite roads. Thus the specter of death haunts the banquet hall of the feast of life and like the abominable who came uninvited to the halls of Pelius and gave the apple of discord that led to the judgment of Paris and the Trojan War, casts a long gloomy shadow over our shining joy. Our vision clouded by dreams of immortality and eternal youth, feeds our obsession to conquer age and death and we commit the Charlie, the tuna fallacy. The cartoon tuna dresses up in a tuxedo and goes to the canning factory to be packed as a tuna with good taste and is told that they are looking for tuna which taste good and not that have good taste.
Peter Medawar, the Nobel prize winning biologist said that natural selection favored a group of genes which cooperated to form a person, who was able to survive, reproduce and raise progeny with similar attributes and paid no attention to longevity and thus did not weed out genes with deleterious characteristics later in life. It was not looking for longevity, because like a true Keynesian, it knows that in the long run, we are all dead and not all the stem cells of the world can dam the inexorable flow of the waters of our mortality.
Shelley said, 'We look before and after and pine for what is not'.
Wherein lies the fruit of search for the elixir of eternal life? The answer for this late entrant and rapid rising species, Homo Sapiens, which is teetering on the pinnacle of the mount of improbability to use Richard Dawkins phraseology, is still given by two ways, known even to the ancients. Vivitr en genio, cetera erunt mortis or genius alone survives, all else is mortal. The other is a simpler less taxing way viz. progeny. Sex in spite of its delightful pleasure, only bequeaths each parent's genes in only half measure. In the final analysis, ideas and children are our only passports to immortality and we better cherish and nourish them, till they grow and flourish so that in Longfellow's immortal words, while departing, we can leave behind our footprints in the sands of time.
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Gaurang Bhatt, MD
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