Chapter 7

Beneath And Beyond


If you were to measure every individual life form on Earth and take an average of their size, you would end up with something invisible to the naked eye, such is the domination of microbes in this world. That said, the range of sizes that known life forms take is truly impressive. This inevitably begs the question: “Is there anything else?” As far as we know, probably not – certainly not that you could count as an individual organism. But there is more: you just have to broaden your horizons a little.



Despite the complex and often fragile nature of our relationships with other organisms, some humans want to rewrite life and break the evolutionary monotony they see as being a barrier to “progress”. Individual genes occupy a space beneath even that of the diminutive virus. What is so special about genes is not that they are life itself, but they allow life to happen. They are the magical molecular ingredients that define what an organism will become: its physical makeup, its mind, its potential as a survivor. Modifying them – moving genes from one organism to another – is like a complete, and possibly malevolent, stranger swapping an ingredient in your favourite cake recipe for something you would never expect to find in cake. The cake may taste better, but it may also poison you.

It may seem as though these changes are being made to fulfil some altruistic desire to do good – increasing crop yields, building in resistance to insects, curing human diseases – but I am not alone in having deep suspicions. As I said earlier, the companies using, and making the money out of these ventures, won’t accept liability for the potential failings of their products. The largest of the corporations involved in genetic modification are also keen to patent their “inventions” as though it is possible to own life[i], like the nineteenth century slave traders who claimed to own their cargoes of imprisoned humanity.

Overriding all of this is that genetic modification is big business:

Shares of the St. Louis-based agri-biotech giant [Monsanto] skyrocketed last week when the company announced it nearly tripled its fiscal first quarter earnings, which rose from $90 million in 2006 to $256 million. Sales for the period rose 36% to $2.1 billion.

The stunning results are largely due to sales of Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds, which have been engineered to repel pests and be immune to herbicides.[ii]

Whatever the history of genetic modification, experimenting with the stuff of life is not something that should be guided by profit. Nor must such tinkering be motivated by politics: governments trying to show that they are supporters of business, or of scientific progress. Science does not have any political leanings, nor does it judge whether one development or another constitutes “progress”; it is simply a set of tools and methods for showing whether something is physically true or not. Science does not have all the answers, not least because not all questions can be couched in scientific terms. It is most certainly true, though, that the misuse of science does cause problems.

You may be familiar with the deep controversy that arises wherever genetic modification rears its head, but this may be as nothing compared to the controversy that threatens to envelop the use of Synthetic Biology. Here is a definition; see how you feel about it.

Synthetic Biology is:

a) The design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and

b) The re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes.[iii]

Some futuristic pipe dream, you may think. Think again: synthetic biology is real and it is being created at a university, government or corporate research laboratory near you. At this level of work biology, technology and chemistry fuse to provide the means to create the building blocks of life from scratch or make modifications to living things that would have been impossible 20 years ago. A glance at one web site[iv], used by many researchers as a hub for information, reveals a host of tools, methods, protocols and systems that would be far more at home in a computer programmer’s library; and essentially, that’s what it is – a library of tools for reprogramming life. Fancy a new strain of E. Coli, yeasts with artificial chromosomes or perhaps a faster growing mouse cell? You can find instructions for creating these right now, on the Internet. Downloading such “recipes” from the web is perfectly legal, yet were the same web site to host information assisting conventional “terrorist”[v] activities like taking out an electrical grid infrastructure, it would almost certainly be shut down.

Proponents of cutting-edge biological research often use the “greater good” argument to justify work that would, in isolation, seem abhorrent to anyone concerned about genetic modification or other processes that alter the nature of life. This idea that there is a necessary level of sacrifice – be that in terms of human life, that of other animals or maybe some long-held belief – required in order to achieve a greater good, is not new. The British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill developed a concept known as Utilitarianism, which essentially means “the greatest good for the greatest number”. In fact, this is a gross oversimplification of something, on the back of which so many false claims have been made. What Mill actually wrote in his book was:

The utilitarian morality does recognise in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others. It only refuses to admit that the sacrifice is itself a good. A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted.[vi]

Essentially, any sacrifice made must be voluntary, and that sacrifice is only worthwhile if it increases the sum total of happiness, or good. By co-opting this idea in order to justify the cloning of embryos as a cure for wasting diseases, or open skull experimentation on the brains of primates to discover the causes of Alzheimer’s, the supporters of these methods seem to have ignored the need for such sacrifice to be voluntary. When considering the potential risks that arise from creating self-replicating artificial life, or manipulating life in such a way that its traits can be passed on to future generations, the sacrifice to be considered is one of global proportions. An editorial in The Economist from 2006 puts this succinctly: “No technology is risk free, but synthetic biology has the twist that its mistakes can breed. Today the risks are not great. Nevertheless, as knowledge increases, so will the risk that something truly nasty might be unleashed.”[vii]

It seems to me that the “greater good” that is so glibly spoken of by enthusiastic politicians and embedded scientific journalists, is utterly eclipsed by a Greatest Good: the need to protect the future from the actions of the present.



Whatever scale we examine life at, each individual organism is just one component of a far greater mass: the bees in their hives and swarms, the cod in their shoals, the trees in their forests. Yet, even the greatest collections of individuals are still only parts of the thing that binds all life together in an infinitely complex dance of birth, survival, change and death. That which some call Gaia, Mother Nature or Creation may just be a vast ecosystem, but it transcends all chance of description or scientific analysis – sometimes all we can do is look on in awe. Humility is not a weakness:

You must, in studying Nature, always consider both each single thing and the whole: nothing is inside and nothing is outside, for what is within is without. Rejoice in the true illusion, in the serious game: no living thing is a unity, it is always manifold.[viii]

On July 4, 2005 the space probe Deep Impact completed its mission successfully. Launched in January 2005 the spacecraft containing the sacrificial probe made a beeline for the comet Tempel 1, describing a curved trajectory, which placed it in the path of the comet orbiting the sun between Mars and Earth. On approach the larger “fly-by” craft released Deep Impact, which plunged into the surface of Tempel 1, causing “a brilliant and rapid release of dust that momentarily saturated the cameras onboard the [larger] spacecraft.”[ix]. The impact crater was the size of a house, and the strength of the collision was sufficient to allow the deeper layers of the comet to be released into space for analysis by the fly-by craft. The mission was hailed a tremendous success by NASA, and widely recognised as a great achievement in the annals of space exploration.

What right do we have to affect a stellar object in this way? Which celestial judge issued humanity with the warrant by which we would be allowed to take chunks out of unearthly bodies? And how can we know that there was no life form on this comet – a life form we could not have detected prior to impact, and certainly not one that we have the moral right to kill. Humans have barely unlocked the first set of gates on the path to discovering all that the Earth has to offer; yet “civilised” humans are now taking the devil-may-care attitude that has damaged so much, to the stars, into a place where the ideas of sustainability and balance lose their comfortable meaning.

Carl Sagan, the luminary cosmologist and philosopher once wrote: “There are worlds on which life has never arisen. There are worlds that have been charred and ruined by cosmic catastrophes. We are fortunate: we are alive; we are powerful; the welfare of our civilization and our species is in our hands.”[x] He could have also added that, with such enormous power and the ability to both create and destroy, we have a moral duty not only to curtail our destruction of the Earth, but also to ensure that, as we move beyond the confines of this planet we do not lose sight of that responsibility. Industrial Civilization makes the assumption that life on other planets, in other galaxies, will only be “advanced” if it can communicate with us; but surely the truly advanced society is one that, above all, has attained equilibrium with its own environment. Technology is no measure of advancement; it is simply a tool that may be used by life for good or ill.

If we choose to search only for life that we consider “advanced” by our own measure then we are potentially ignoring the majority of life elsewhere. The Earth may be all that we are certain of that contains life, but that does not mean we should not respect that which lies beyond it: we have so far made a pretty bad job of looking after our own home. Should we be entrusted with the care of anyone else’s?


Bringing It All Together

So there you have it: from the very smallest organism that might just qualify as life, to the very largest that has ever been, we have seen the richness and complexity of life operating across a vast range of scales, all of them within the thin envelope of atmosphere and ocean that provides a home for every living thing on Earth.

The tales you have read which move from virus to bacteria, nematode to bee, cod to spruce, exclude many other life forms that have so many stories to tell; but even with these inevitable gaps one thing is clear. At every scale we have looked at, humans are tied up in the tale – both as cause and effect, often the perpetrator of the ills that have befallen the life form, and always the victim. As you will see in Part Two, nothing is so dependent upon other forms of life as humans, the ultimate consumers. Everything we do has the potential to disrupt something, knock it off balance as we negotiate the finest of lines; yet, that line we are repeatedly stepping over, with our battery farms, our bulldozers, our trawlers and our relentless production of climate changing gases; seems to be getting narrower.

If an organism exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment, a natural mechanism takes charge to ensure that the environment doesn’t collapse entirely. Food, the essential ingredient for sustaining life and allowing it to expand, develop and evolve, becomes scarce. This is not intelligence as we would normally understand it, it is just something that takes place because the natural resources of that environment are finite – the environment can supply no more.

As food becomes scarce the organism contracts in terms of its distribution over space, the number of individuals in a certain area, or both. This allows the food source to be naturally replenished in such a way that the life form, if enough time is allowed, can once again thrive. As the organism once more expands its distribution and increases its density the food source will again start to run out. Unless a balance is achieved between the food source and the organism’s consumption of that food then this process will continually take place, like a tide of plenty washing over the space that the organism occupies, and then receding, time and time again.

The steady state between natural food production and consumption is known as sustainability, and it applies to all resources being used by all life forms. If the organism refuses or fails to contract in the face of diminishing resources then the environment will reach a level of scarcity from which it may not be able to return in that organism’s lifetime. Nature doesn’t pull any punches – an organism that refuses to play the sustainability game will always lose. Nature will eventually recover.

Whether humanity will, is another matter.


[Continue to Part 2]


[i] GM Freeze, “Independent assessment of the implications of patents on genetic resources”, (accessed 22 February, 2008)

[ii] Money Morning, “Monsanto Reaps Huge Rewards From Its Blossoming Seed Business”, (accessed 22 February, 2008)

[iii] Definition from (accessed 22 February, 2008)

[iv] OpenWetWare, (accessed 23 February, 2008)

[v] Terrorism is in the eye of the target. The word has been ridiculously misused in recent years, such that you can be branded a terrorist in both the USA and the UK simply for suggesting that suicide bombers may sometimes have just motivation for acting as they do. “Terrorism” has become a classic propaganda word, in the same sense that “Communism” was a propaganda word during the McCarthy era (USA from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s): it instils fear, thus allowing for greater control over those who are persuaded to be afraid.

[vi] John Stuart Mill, “Utilitarianism : Second Edition”, Hackett, 2001.

[vii] “Synthetic Life”, The Economist, 2006, (accessed 23 February, 2008)

[viii] J.W. von Goethe, “Epirrhema”, from “Goethe : Selected Verse”, translated by David Luke, Penguin, 1964.

[ix] Deep Impact post-encounter factsheet, NASA, (accessed 23 February, 2008)

[x] Carl Sagan, “Cosmos”, MacDonald, 1981.


A Matter Of Scale by Keith Farnish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License.


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