Gut Instincts

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, May 14, 2006

The birds are trilling their love songs, the jasmine spraying the air with fragrance. A spring day. I'm at my familiar spot on the back porch. It is good to be alive. I'm reading a book that is not only well-written but has the vapors of merit that come from being checked out of the public library. It's The Ecology of Eden, by Evan Eisenberg. And I come to a passage about microbes that live in the hindgut of termites:

"To make sure that each has a full complement of these vital microbes, termites engage in coprophagy: that is, they eat one another's stool. The hindgut of a modern termite is a zoo, many of whose denizens have amazing symbioses among themselves. For example, a lozenge-shaped microbe called Mixotricha paradoxa is propelled through the fluids of the gut by half a million spirochetes that cling to its side, beating in synchrony like galley slaves."

Let us review. You've got a termite. In its guts is a microbe shaped like a cough drop. Latched onto the microbe are tiny organisms that help it swim through the darkness of the excretory tract. I don't want to be a snob, but this strikes me as the bottom of the ol' totem pole.

True, we shouldn't be speciesist. We shouldn't mock the phylogeny of others simply because they are fated to, for example, hatch in cow dung. The enlightened citizen of the biosphere knows how to say the word "maggot" without it sounding like an insult.

And yet as I sit here, enjoying life, enjoying sentience, I am wondering why I get to be so lucky.

Why am I not a poop-eating parasite living my entire life in the darkness of a bug's rectum?

Which brings up the blood-curdling, shrieking-violins follow-up: How do I know I'm not?

We're into epistemologically hairy territory here. It would be deeply disturbing to wake from our human dream and discover that it's going to be another day of rowing in an insect's bowels. There are troubling metaphorical possibilities as well. The other day I tried to sign up for a parking space in the company garage, and was told that there's a 25-year waiting list. That would mean I'd get a space at the age of 70. That's mighty close to Termite Hindgut Country.

Invariably we struggle with the mystery of being who we are. Seriously: Why are you you? Haven't you ever stared into the bathroom mirror at 3 in the morning and thought: Why did I turn out to be this person and not someone else?

After many years of dialing experts on deadline, I've learned whom to call in a serious existential emergency: J. Richard Gott, professor of astrophysics at Princeton University.

"Rich, I have a question. Why am I me, and not, like, a bug, or a tree, or a blade of grass?"

This is what I love about Dr. Gott: He doesn't miss a beat! It's like he's been waiting for someone to call with that question.

"It's sort of an anthropic question," he begins. "To ask that question, you have to be an intelligent observer. A tree doesn't ask this question. A bug doesn't ask that question."

He calls this an "observational selection effect." And he cites the Copernican Principle. We must assume that we are ultimately very ordinary rather than privileged.

"You have to ask yourself, is what you're observing unusual relative to other intelligent observers?"

It's not. My profound existential question is something any intelligent observer could ask. It's mundane.

This explains the parking problem. The Copernican Principle states that I should not be in a special position in regard to all the people who might or might not have a parking space. The likely fate of a human being is to be, in most respects, ordinary -- not as a matter of good or bad luck, but merely as a statistical probability in a universe that is deeply probabilistic.

The Copernican Principle states that we would expect to be alive during a period of high population rather than low population -- which is exactly the case. We would also expect to live in a country with a large population, such as the United States.

Gott has used the Copernican Principle to argue that we'll probably never colonize the galaxy. We could, but that would put all of us in a special place -- the home planet. He mocks the concept: "How exciting it is! We're on the founding planet of a galactic empire! We're very lucky!"

Luck is not to be expected.

"You, in particular," he says to me, "are not likely to be special."

That isn't exactly what I wanted to hear. The fate of man is to be not special, to be ordinary, to be in the mid-range of everything.

But I can think of a worse existence.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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