Since we should all be busy planning on alternatives to planet earth, my mind has turned to tardigrades. Known as “water bears” these very simple animals are amazingly complex. Don’t go looking for them in your drinking water, however. They’re microscopic. So why am I thinking about tardigrades at a time like this? Because they’re one of the few organisms that scientists believe could actually survive the destruction of the planet. Who knows? They might even be able to survive in Washington, DC. Maybe that’s why they’re in The Washington Post.
Able to cling to life at the cusp of absolute zero, in conditions with no oxygen, and at doses of radiation that would leave the human race—among most other species—fried, these micro-organisms are truly remarkable. No wonder scientists are playing with thought-experiments as to how to wipe them out. Hey, scientists are only human after all. Don’t worry—nobody’s really trying to kill these little guys off. The question behind Ben Guarino’s story seems to be what makes these tiny creatures so amazingly resilient. It raises an issue that I often ponder. The will to survive. Evolution is, according to standard theory, without purpose. Natural selection works in a “logical” way: the most successful organism survives long enough to breed and its traits become standard options in the next generation. Nobody needs to want anything (except to mate) and chance takes care of the rest. But that doesn’t explain the will to survive. The “eye of the tiger,” if you will. I’m sure this wasn’t what the Washington Post was intending to trigger, but doesn’t it seem strange that even “non-conscious” micro-organisms “want” to survive?
The desire to exist is dangerous territory. It has a whiff of the divine about it. One of the characteristics of life, if my high school biology isn’t completely outdated, is the ability to reproduce. What it didn’t address, for fear of teenage snickers, I’m sure, is the desire to reproduce. Why does life insist on its own continuation? Is it truly just an eons’ long succession of one-night stands that results in creatures capable of even asking that question? Or is there something more to it? Tardigrades have segmented bodies, legs, and claws. All at less than 40,000 cells per individual. They lack a neocortex (which doesn’t necessarily disqualify an individual from being president). They can’t answer the questions we put to them. As individuals they are remarkably easy to kill. As a species, however, their resilience carries the answers to some very deep questions. If only we had the will to ask them.