Ancestors of Awakening

"Our task in the coming era is to relocate ourselves in the cosmos and to renew our kinship with all of earth life. It is time to join again in the dance-drama of biological and cosmic evolution." --D. H. Lawrence

Reflecting on the scientific story of evolution we find a lineage of bodhisattvas, saints of compassion, stretching back millions of years through epochs of geological time. We owe our existence to the struggles and sacrifices of uncountable numbers of beings; creatures who had to shape-shift to meet the ever-changing demands of natural forces; who suffered horribly through atmospheric upheavals, ice ages, comets crashing into earth, continents colliding, volcanoes erupting, floods and vicious plagues. Through their fierce determination to live, all those beings have brought us to this present moment of semi-awakened consciousness.

In order to honor those who made our life possible, I suggest that we go back to some form of ancestor worship. By ancestor worship I don't mean just keeping a daguerreotype of Grandpa on the mantel. I'm talking about deep ancestor worship, which requires that we dig into our evolutionary past and evoke the spirit of those who made it possible for us to become the brilliantly befuddled humans we are today. We want to bring all the ancestors into our circle of reverence, and we can start by telling their stories. Here are a few.

We'll begin, appropriately, with an acknowledgment of the very first living being, a single-celled organism that scientists have named LUCA, an acronym for the "last universal common ancestor." Perhaps we should make a grand statue of this life form and place a replica in all the major plazas and malls of the world. Every living being on earth can trace its ancestry back to LUCA, the androgynous progenitor of us all.

The story is magical and inspiring. Just imagine the stormy beginnings on this fiery ball of cooling earth magma, out on the roiling, broiling seas, when a precision bolt of supercharged lightning hits a fecund blob of chemical scum and SHAZAM! -- those newly energized elements begin bouncing around in a wild molecular dance, bonding with each other to create the first organic molecules that eventually, mysteriously, weave themselves into the complex spirals of DNA. The initial expression of all this mixing and matching of matter turns out to be LUCA, a determined little membrane-enclosed child of the mud. Suddenly, some of the substance of earth acquires a strange new condition -- life.

I would imagine that in the beginning, 3.8 billion years ago, life was relatively good for LUCA, just bobbing around on the ocean waves all day, not a care in the world. No doubt LUCA was as happy as any being could be at the time, partly because there were no other beings around for comparison. She was also happy because no other beings were around who could eat her. (We're giving LUCA a female identity, even though back in her day there wasn't any gender.)

As you might imagine, LUCA eventually became lonely and sad, unable to share this strange and beautiful existence ("Hey, look at that sunset -- someone"), and after a few million years of isolation, LUCA finally came upon a solution. Stretching the miniscule substance of her body to the breaking point, and then pushing outward even harder from the spiraling DNA core of her being, with a final spasm of energy LUCA split in two! The story of evolution had begun.

At last LUCA had someone to share the world with, and she started having twice as much fun, literally. What happened was that LUCA had found someone to love, and the being who she fell in love with was actually part of her self. LUCA fell in love with LUCA! There are those who might consider this a case of narcissism, but there is a profound spiritual message in this story, telling us to consider all other living beings as part of ourselves, which is the truth of the matter. We have good reason to love all beings as ourselves.

Even after creating her companion, LUCA kept dividing. Her offspring started dividing as well, and before you could blink a membrane, 2 had become 4 had become 16 had become 32 ... and suddenly we were in the middle of a cellular baby boom. Considering how often they did it and continue to do it, perhaps we can assume that procreation by dividing (mitosis) feels as good as sex. And the cells don't even have to take each other out to dinner first.

Not only are we descended from a single cell, we are made out of cells, the fundamental building blocks of all life. Cells were first noticed in 1665 when English scientist Robert Hooke was examining cork under a microscope and saw all these little partitions. He thought they looked like cells in a monastery so he gave them that name. We now know that life has gone from a single-celled being, LUCA, to beings such as humans, each of us composed of 100 trillion cells. Scientists estimate that cell division happens 10 million times a second in the average human body. LUCA's children have survived and thrived, and we bow to her fecundity and inventiveness.

Along with LUCA, we could include many important species in our ancestor worship, but none seem more worthy of reverence than the amphibians. None of us would have ever found the path to awakening if those first amphibians, the descendants of fish, hadn't led us onto solid ground, a journey that took a few million rather difficult years. Switching the medium that you live in can't be easy.

The earliest frog-like beings evolved about 400 million years ago when the pectoral and pelvic fins of certain fish developed joints, turning those fins into a primitive form of legs which were then used to crawl up onto land. These beings were colonizing a whole new habitat for LUCA's vertebrate descendants, taking one small step for an amphibian, one giant leap for life.

Just imagine the heroic efforts of those first backboned landlubbers, with their awkward little fin-feet, the webbing between the digits still in place, sliding off the hard and unfamiliar rock surfaces as the ocean tried to suck them back to where their predators swam. And if they could manage to hold onto the land for a while, they still had to deal with the atmosphere and how to breathe through air instead of water. And to make matters worse, the air was so much less buoyant than the water that those early land-walkers could barely move themselves around through the heavier pull of gravity. (Is it any wonder that some of the more intelligent land mammals moved back to the oceans?)

The sacrifice of the frog lineage was truly enormous, and we have failed to offer any recognition or reverence in return, aside from our love for Kermit. But perhaps we can now make up for our oversight by trying to save the frogs from extinction. All across the planet they are dying out, and those that aren't dying are mutating, but not into the princes of our fairytales. They are instead becoming monsters, grotesqueries. Some leading biologists such as E. O. Wilson believe that frogs are about to make some sad biological history by becoming victims of the earth's largest mass extinction since the disappearance of the dinosaurs -- an amphibian apocalypse. We are facing the possible extinction of an entire class of animals (including frogs and toads, caecilians and salamanders) with more than half of the world's 6,000 amphibian species already on the endangered lists. These species are affected by habitat loss, climate changes, pollution and an increasing vulnerability to parasites and diseases. The frogs and other amphibians are considered an indicator species, the canary in the coalmine of earth's atmosphere, this time croaking us all a warning.

There are several good but selfish reasons why humans should try to save the frogs. First we should note that humans, too, are descendants of the early amphibians, the frogs are our cousins. We might also consider that if the frogs disappear we will likely have plagues of mosquitoes and flies. And if the frogs disappear then the snakes will start slithering into the suburbs to find food. Of course, the greatest tragedy for us is that if the frogs disappear we will no longer hear them singing in the evening twilight.

But let's take a deep-ecology point of view, and arouse some concern and sympathy for the frogs for their own sake. After all, the frogs lead important lives too; they have mothers and children (remember the cute little tadpoles). Also on the sentimental side, remember that "froggy went a courtin'." How could we let them disappear?

So many species belong in our circle of reverence. We could bow low (very low) to the gazillions of tiny beings (cyanobacteria) that turned the air into an oxygen-rich mixture, necessary for the development of the enormous complexity of life on earth; and big bows to the marine worms who invented the spine (Say it loud, I'm a vertebrate and I'm proud!) and then to a later generation of worms who plowed and prepared the soil with nitrogen for the well-being of the plant kingdom. Also, a deep prostration of gratitude to that group of pre-human primates who struggled to learn cooperation and the language to make it work, the ones who felt the first mirror neurons blinking on, a signal of what would later become "love." (LUCA would be proud of her offspring.) And here's to those really great apes who looked into the reflecting water of a lake, perhaps, and for the first time saw themselves, and for the first time knew of their own life and death, and then began wondering about the mysteries of existence. Many praises to those nameless ones who, not so long ago, must have experienced the great confusion that we still feel today when we realize our existence.

The ancestors of our awakening are countless, but we vow to bring them all into our circle of reverence. Maybe you could work up the biography of one of your favorite long-ago ancestors -- animal, plant or even fungus or bacteria -- and talk about its life to your friends and children. We need to find ways to bring evolution alive by turning it into stories, songs, dances. The time has come to delight in the fact that we are part of this grand unfolding and unfinished revelation; to take our place as members of the extended family of life on earth.

Wes Nisker is a teacher of Buddhism; Author; Performer;