It's two o'clock on a blustery afternoon, six months after my
midnight hike, when I climb the hill behind my house again. The
windblown grass is green from the winter's rain. Up near the ridge I
stop at a circle where the deer have matted the soft grass into a
cushion. The trampled stems are weathered, buff with a tinge of violet,
as if the color has rubbed off the deer's bellies. I rest in this
recess. The wind swipes overhead.
I can see wildflowers crouched among the blown grass blades. For some
reason every species is blue-violet: lupine, blue-eyed grass, thistle,
gentian. Between me, the bent grass, and the ocean there are shrubs,
squat creatures outfitted with silvery olive leaves -- standard desert
Here's a stem of Queen Anne's lace. Its furrowed leaves are mind-
bogglingly intricate. Each leaf has two dozen minileaves arrayed on it,
and each of those minileaves has a dozen microleaves arrayed on it. The
recursive shape is the result of some obsessive process, no doubt. Its
bunched flower head, 30 miniature cream white florets surrounding a
single tiny purple floret in the center, is equally unexpected. On this
one slope where I rest, the diversity of living forms is overwhelming in
its detail and unlikeliness.
I should be impressed. But what strikes me as I sit among two million
grass plants and several thousand juniper shrubs, is how similar life on
Earth is. For all the possible shapes and behaviors animated matter
could take, only a few -- in wide variation -- are tried out. Life can't fool
me. It's all the same, like those canned goods in grocery stores with
different labels but all manufactured by the same food conglomerate.
Life on Earth obviously all comes from one transnational
The grass pushing up on my seat, the scraggly thistle stem rubbing my
shirt, the brown-breasted swallow swooping downhill: they are a single
thing stretching out in many directions. I recognized it because I am
stretched into it too.
Life is a networked thing -- a distributed being. It is one organism
extended in space and time. There is no individual life. Nowhere do we
find a solo organism living. Life is always plural. (And not until it
became plural -- cloning itself -- could life be called life.) Life entails
interconnections, links, and shared multiples. "We are of the same
blood, you and I," coos the poet Mowgli. Ant, we are of the same blood,
you and I. Tyrannosaurus, we are of the same blood, you and I. AIDS
virus, we are of the same blood, you and I.
The apparent individuals that life has dispersed itself into are
illusions. "Life is [primarily] an ecological property, and an
individual property for only a fleeting moment," writes microbiologist
Clair Folsome, a man who dabbled in making superorganisms inside
bottles. We live one life, distributed. Life is a transforming flood
that fills up empty containers and then spills out of them on its way to
fill up more. The shape and number of vessels submerged by the flood
doesn't make a bit of difference.
Life works as an extremist, a fanatic without moderation. It infiltrates
everywhere. It saturates the atmosphere, covers the Earth's surface and
wheedles its way into bedrock cracks. It will not be refused. As
Lovelock noted, we have dug up no ancient rocks without also digging up
ancient life preserved in them. John von Neumann, who thought of life in
mathematical terms, said, "living organisms are...by any reasonable
theory of probability or thermodynamics, highly improbable...[However]
if by any peculiar accident there should ever be one of them, from there
on the rules of probability do not apply, and there will be many of
them." Life once made, filled the Earth immediately, commandeering
matter from all the realms -- gas, liquid, solid -- into its schemes. "Life is
a planetary-scale phenomenon," said James Lovelock. "There cannot be
sparse life on a planet. It would be as unstable as half of an
A thin membrane of whole life now covers the entire Earth. It is a coat
that cannot be taken off. Rip one seam and the coat will patch itself on
the spot. Abuse it, and the coat will metamorphose itself to thrive on
the abuse. Not a threadbare green, it is a lush technicolor coat, a
flamboyant robe surrounding the colossal corporeality of the planet.
In practice, it is an everlasting coat. The great secret which life has
kept from us is that once born, life is immortal. Once launched, it
cannot be eradicated.
Despite the rhetoric of radical environmentalists, it is beyond the
power of human beings to wipe the whole flood of life off the planet.
Mere nuclear bombs would do little to halt life in general, and might,
in fact, increase the nonhuman versions.
There must have been a time billions of years ago when life crossed the
threshold of irreversibility. Let's call that the I-point (for
irreversible, or immortal). Before the I-point life was tenuous; indeed
it faced a steep uphill slope. Frequent meteor impacts, fierce
radiation, and harsh temperature fluctuations on Earth four billion
years ago created an incredibly hostile environment for any
half-formed, about-to-replicate complexity. But then, as Lovelock tells
the story, "very early in the history of the planet, the climate
conditions formed a window of opportunity just about right for life.
Life had a short period in which to establish itself. If it failed, the
whole system for future life failed."
But once established, life stuck fast. And once past the I-point life
turned out to be neither delicate nor fragile, but hardy and
irrepressible. Single cell bacteria are astonishingly indomitable,
living in every possible antagonistic environment one could imagine,
including habitats doused with heavy radiation. As hospitals know, it is
frustratingly difficult to rid a few rooms of bacterial life. The Earth?
We should heed the unstoppable nature of life, because it has much to do
with the complexity of vivisystems. We are about to make machines as
complex as grasshoppers and let them loose in the world. Once born, they
won't go away. Of the thousands of computer viruses cataloged by virus
hunters so far, not one species of them has gone extinct. According to
the companies that write antiviral software there are several dozens of
new computer viruses created per week. They'll be with us for as long as
we have computers.
The reason life cannot be halted is that the complexity of life's
dynamics has exceeded the complexity of all known destructive forces.
Life is far more complex than nonlife. While life can serve as an agent
of death -- predator chomping on prey -- the consumption of one life form by
another generally does not diminish complexity in the whole system and
may even add to it.
It takes, on average, all the diseases and accidents of the world
working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with no vacations, about 621,960
hours to kill a human organism. That's 70 years of full-time attack to
break the bounds of human life -- barring the intervention of modern
medicine (which may either accelerate or hinder death, depending on
your views). This stubborn persistence in life is directly due to the
complexity of the human body.
In contrast, a well-built car that managed to puff its way to an upper
limit of 200,000 miles before blowing a valve would have run for about
5,000 hours. A jet turbine engine may run for 40,000 hours before being
rebuilt. A simple light bulb with no moving parts is good for 2,000
hours. The longevity of nonliving complexity isn't even in the same
league as the persistence of life.
The museum at the Harvard Medical School dedicates a display case to the
"crowbar skull." This skull reveals a hole roughly gouged by a speeding
iron bar. The skull belonged to Phineas Gage, a 19th-century quarry
foreman who was packing a black powder charge into a hole with the iron
bar when the powder exploded. The iron bar pierced his head. His crew
sawed off the protruding bar before taking him to an ill-equipped
doctor. According to anecdotes from those who knew him, Gage lived for
another 13 years, more or less functional, except that after the
accident he became short-tempered and peevish. Which is understandable.
But the machine kept going.
People who lack a pancreas, a second kidney, a small intestine, may not
run marathons, but they live. While debasement of many small components
of the body -- glands in particular -- can cause death to the whole, these
parts are heavily buffered from easy disruption. Indeed, warding off
disruption is the principal property of complex systems.
Animals and plants in the wild regularly survive drastic violence and
injury. The only study I know that has tried to measure the rate of
injury in the wild focused on Brazilian lizards and concluded that 12
percent of them were missing at least one toe. Elk survive gunshot
wounds, seals heal after shark bites, oak trees resprout after
decapitation. In one experiment gastropods whose shells were
deliberately crushed by researchers and returned to the wild lived as
long as uninjured controls. The heroic achievement in nature is not the
little fish that gets away, but that old man death is ever able to crash
Networked complexity inverts the usual relation of reliability in
things. As an example, individual switch parts in a modern camera may
have 90 percent dependability. Linked dumbly in a series, not in a
distributed way, the hundreds of switches would have great unreliability
as a group -- let's say they have 75 percent dependability. Connected
right -- each part informing the others -- as they are in advanced
point-'n'-shoots, the reliability of the camera counter intuitively
rises as a whole to 99 percent, exceeding the reliability of the
individual parts (90 percent).
But the camera now has new subgroups of parts which act like parts
themselves. More virtual parts means the total possibility for
unpredictable behavior at the component level increases. There are now
novel ways to go wrong. So while the camera as a whole is utterly more
dependable, when it does surprise, it can often be a very surprising
surprise. The old cameras were easy to fail, easy to repair. The new
cameras fail creatively.
Failing creatively is the hallmark of vivisystems. Dying is difficult,
but there are a thousand ways to do it. It took two hundred overpaid
engineers two weeks of emergency alert work to figure out why the
semi-alive American telephone switching system repeatedly failed in
1990. And these are the guys who built it. It had never failed this way,
and probably won't fail this way again.
While every human is born pretty much the same, every death is
different. If coroner's cause-of-death certificates were exact, each one
would be unique. Medicine finds it more instructive to round off the
causes and classify them generally, so the actual idiosyncratic nature
of each death is not recorded.
A complex system cannot die simply. The members of a system have a
bargain with the whole. The parts say, "We are willing to sacrifice to
the whole, because together we are greater than our sum." Complexity
locks in life. The parts may die, but the whole lives. As a system
self-organizes into greater complexity, it increases its life. Not the
length of its life, but its lifeness. It has more lives.
We tend to think of life and death as binary; a creature is either off
or on. The self-organizing subsystems in organisms suggest, though, that
some things are more alive than others. Biologist Lynn Margulis and
others have pointed out that even a cell has lives in plural, as each
cell is a historical marriage of at least three vestigial forms of
"I am the most alive among the living," crows the Russian poet A.
Tarkovsky (father of the filmmaker). That's politically incorrect, but
probably true. There may be no real difference between the aliveness of
a sparrow and a horse, but there is a difference of aliveness between a
horse and a willow tree, or between a virus and a cricket. The greater
the complexity of a vivisystem, the more life it may harbor. As long as
the universe continues to cool down, life will build up in more curious
varieties and in further mutual networks.