Microbial Life, The Myths of Science and the Legacy of Lovecraft

Having just finished Stefan Helmreich’s Alien Oceans: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas, I was struck by a number of things, but, most fugitive, and therefore most interesting, was one parable he recorded, told to him by a postdoc at the Delong Lab at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

This postdoc, described as being interested in alternative epistemologies, spirituality, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and the French Jesuit, paleontologist and philosopher Teilhard du Chardain, described the potential geological life cycle of methane producing microbes in a subsection entitled “Lovelock meets Lovecraft”:

“Once upon a time, when the earth was young, there was very little oxygen in the atmosphere. Instead, the atmosphere was mostly composed of methane and carbon dioxide and the oceans were warm and shallow. Life evolved to thrive under these greenhouse conditions. Methanogenic microbes feeding on carbon dioxide and other simple carbon compounds produced vast quantities of methane and this methane was in turn consumed by methane-oxidizing microbes found primarily beneath the ocean’s surface. In cooperation with sulfate-reducing organisms, the methane-oxidizing microbes built towering reef cities formed from mineralized carbonate and filled them over countless generations with their collective brood.

And affairs continued in this tranquil equilibrium for one and a half billion years, until the genesis of oxygenic-phototrophic metabolisms and the oxidation of the atmosphere. Life forms able to adapt to elevated oxygen levels thrived and radiated. Meanwhile, those content with living in anoxic places were pushed to marginal zones, to extreme environments– subterranean worlds and still waters, mud flats, and seafloor spreading centers. The great reef cities fell into ruin and were subsumed into submarine strata, a cryptic but lingering record of the lives of these ancient organisms. Despite this catastrophic reversal of fortune, these ancient ones held onto the edges of their once great empire and there they waited.

And here’s the moral of this conjectural tale: They knew, these ancient ones knew, to the very core of their genomic fiber, that it would all be okay, because through their DNA they had bequeathed the knowledge and the drive to return and rebuild. Because it turns out that all of the anthropogenic processes connected to climate change– fuel emissions, deforestation, cattle grazing– may well have the result of bringing back the ancient atmosphere. you see, these ancient organisms are patient. And here are the ironies– a good story always has ironies– they have no imperial ambitions, they have adapted to live and lurk in the marginal zones. But when the madness of humanity resurrected the ancient atmosphere they will be ready and willing to return, to rebuild their ancient dwellings beneath the sea and continue their eldritch cycling of methane. And the primordial balance will return. Until the next big catastrophe.”

The narrative helps to show the influence of Lovecraftian myths for contemporary scientists in the field, and how these myths play into the larger concerns of geological time, the “order” of nature, and critiques of anthropocentric thinking that were themselves part of the cultural milieu that Lovecraft himself was addressing at the beginning of the 20th century. Mythic thinking, is, after all, not reserved to traditional religions but plays itself out in any form of life that finds itself colliding with the uncertainties of acting in the world, even that of science. Indeed, Helmreich’s pairing of James Lovelock, one of the founding fathers of the “Gaia hypothesis”, with Lovecraft, whose myth cycle could be considered the cosmic counterpoint to it (emphasizing the extreme fragility of life and the incomprehensibility of the “inner workings” of existence) consciously plays off of the fundamental dichotomy of a secular mythology contrasting ecological “order” to “chaos”.

For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Teilhard_de_Chardin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._P._Lovecraft

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Lovelock

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_hypothesis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanogenic_bacteria

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