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Can an Ant Fathom and Appreciate the Forest?

Imagine standing on the shores of a vast ocean, with the setting sun as a mesmerizing backdrop, capturing the view of the horizon as far as the eyes can see. Slightly or more practically, largely unaware of the beauty that exists beyond and beneath the enchanting waters. Imagine traversing the mountainous terrains with the night sky adorned with shimmering stars in the company of the tranquil moon, forming a bejewelled canopy above you. 

Through this, echoes humanity’s oldest and most profound enigma in science - The origin(s) of life. Who we are and where did we come from? Additionally, how did we come into this being? How did we acquire our thinking ability that there is (today)? To an extent where, utterance of the word ‘imagine’, transports us to the besaid scenarios in fraction of a second.

The mystery surrounding the origin(s) of life has intrigued the human mind for centuries now. The quest to unravel the secrets has kept the scientific world engaged perennially. From primordial soup to extraterrestrial origins, various theories have been proposed. Despite significant advancements in science, the precise mechanism by which life emerged continues to remain elusive. 

Panchabhootas, a concept in Hindu Cosmology, enlists prithvi, aapah(jala), tejas(agni), vayuh and aakasha, as the five elements of life. These are believed to be the foundational elements that constitute the fabric of the universe according to Hindu Philosophical thought. Prithvi and jala provide the physical substrate and essential fluid medium for life to emerge and thrive. Agni represents the energy required to drive processes. Vayuh and aakasha facilitate the exchange of gases. 

The concept of Panchabhootas and abiogenesis resonate in principle. The complex dynamic interplay between the basic elements results in the emergence of life by integrating the physical and chemical dimensions of existence. 

Prithvi embodies solidity and stability. It represents the physical realm upon which life manifests. From microscopic organisms to gigantic creatures, prithvi provides the nurturing substrate for life to grow and flourish. 

Jala epitomises fluidity, adaptability and resilience. Serving as the elixir, vital for sustenance of life, it provides and creates a conducive environment for life-driving processes (chemical reactions to occur).

Agni is energy personified. It symbolises light and energy. Agni is the formidable driving force for metabolic processes in living organisms. The energy from the sun provides the primary source of energy for life on earth, through photosynthesis and radiation. 

Vayuh signifies movement and circulation. By facilitating the gaseous exchange between an organism and its environment, it embodies the interconnectedness of life. 

Aakasha transcends beyond the physical realm and is the space where life evolves. It represents the subtle dimensions of consciousness and energy vibrations/frequencies. 

The human body, on average, contains about 60% water (jala). And this water component predominating across all living kingdoms is maintained throughout. Air (Vayuh) plays a continuous role in life processes, being indispensable and enabling the essential exchange of gases, particularly oxygen. Heat which is manifested through endothermic and exothermic reactions is symbolised by Agni. With time, mass keeps getting added to an organism, from birth to death, represented by matter and material (Prithvi). 

All of these indicate that the foundational elements are involved in the continuum, including sustenance and not just for the formation of life. 

The integration of Hindu Philosophy and scientific inquiry on the origin(s) of life provides a multifaceted perspective. The Hindu Philosophy, through the concept of Panchabhootas, highlights the emergence of life from basic elements. The scientific inquiry, through theories of abiogenesis, explores the advent of life from non-living matter. The confluence of these standpoints reiterates the interconnectedness of the physical, chemical and biological dimensions of life. Ancient wisdom and contemporary studies entwine, fostering a profound appreciation for intricate interrelations and offering deep insights into life’s enigmatic beginnings, sustenance and evolution. 

The main belief in Hinduism regarding the origin of life is that all life forms are manifestations of the divine. In its holy scriptures Puranas, Brahma is said to have created the world. The Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam share similar perspectives on the origin of life. In Judaism, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh provides an account of the creation of the world in the first chapter, Book of Genesis. It credits God for creating the universe and all life forms over a span of six days. Belief in Christianity about the origin of life is also largely drawn from the Genesis narrative in the Hebrew Bible. Most believe in the doctrine that God is the divine creator who brought the universe and life into existence. Similarly, in Islam, The Quran depicts God as the ultimate creator of all beings. 

Advent of exobiology or astrobiology explored the potential for extraterrestrial life. Studies from as early as the 1960s by exemplary minds like Dr. Joshua Lederberg (a Nobel laureate at a tender age of 33 and who coined the term ‘exobiology’) and Dr. Cyril Ponnamperuma investigating the origins of life using samples procured from NASA’s extra-planetary missions to more recent evidences from Japan’s Hayabusa2  containing asteroid Ryugu’s samples have continued to shed light. The resilience and adaptability of microorganisms showcased life’s ability to not just survive but also thrive in sparingly conducive conditions like submarine hydrothermal vents or acidic hot springs. These collective endeavors underscore our quest to decode the mysteries of life’s origins and reshape our understanding of the fundamental question of our existence. 

So what actually is life? What forms life? Does mixing 5 elements in a test tube create life? What is cessation of life?

Attempts have been made to create artificial life in the lab resulting in partial success or partial failure, based on how one may choose to see it. Success so far has been restricted to generating life-like/cell-like structures with some functional properties (jeewanu). Molecular components required for life have been created synthetically but a fully functional cell that can capture energy, maintain potential gradients, contain macromolecules, store information and replicate - remains an evasive target. [1,2,3]

So then what exactly is the missing element? An unknown? Anything beyond the five elements of Panchabhootas? Is this where consciousness comes in? The role and cruciality of consciousness in life is well established. What dimensions does consciousness take? Is this intangible aspect a cause or a consequence of life?

Scientific views on consciousness vary, with perspectives ranging from physicalist theories which attribute consciousness as stemming from complex brain functions and neural processes to panpsychist theories that suggest its intrinsic role in all matter in the universe. Contemporary cogitations on consciousness provide further food for thought. Anil Seth, a Bristish neuroscientist, Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, in his book, ‘Being You: A New Science of Consciousness’, iterates that ‘consciousness is something that can be addressed by science. This goes against an influential idea that consciousness is beyond the reach of science.’

The multitude of thoughts and questions that arise about early beginnings and our claims of knowledge is reduced to a minuscule when it dawns on the insignificant human mind, that all of this is a mere 4% of what exists. Beyond that is the remaining, humongous 96% of unknown - dark matter and energy - awaiting exploration. 

It is no mean feat to grasp the unfathomable expanse of creation. A projected monumental figure of 8.7 million species of eukaryotic living organisms; of which a meagre fraction to the effect of only 1.2 million species identified. A count that will possibly surpass trillions upon accounting for prokaryotes. All of this is post the aftermath of extinction of 99% of species, with time. 

Questions on fundamental aspects of life continue to persist. For instance, is the cell or gene the basic unit of life? Unanswered queries provide immense scope to ponder and perceive the hard-to-perceive creation even if the strides are lilliputian. 

An organ with the dimensions of 12cm*4cm*3cm - the human kidney, has had scientists trying to understand it for close to 200 years now. Professor Shumlansky of Russian origin was the first to study renal anatomy and physiology in the year 1788. Richard Bright conducted the first study on kidney pathology in 1827. Theodor Fahr was the first modern renal pathologist. A PubMed search on total research publications on kidney yields a mammoth 10,48,289 results spanning from 1786-2024. Despite so much study, there still remain many unknowns. 

Out of so many components in the human body, this is one. This is just a microcosm of the whole.

Doesn’t that suffice to cause an overwhelming sense of appreciation for Nature’s bountiful creation? 

The universe is estimated to contain 200 billion to 2 trillion galaxies. To use the Milky Way galaxy as an example, the latter contains 100-400 billion stars and an almost equal number of planets, one of which is the Earth. So, isn’t it only right to think that the entire mankind is less than a grain of sand or a speck of dust? 

How accurate would it be to consider humanity as singularity?

It is only a so-called well-known 4%. That it is riddled with a big share of conjectures, is common knowledge. Everything or most things are still ifs and buts. All we can do is pose questions and strive to seek answers. 

If all of this constitutes the known 4%, one can only try to imagine the magnitude of the remaining unknown. 

Image credits: NASA

So, how much do we actually know now? It does seem like we have moved very little from where we started off. 

It adds great profundity to quote John Keats who beautifully captures life’s essence in his famous lines when he said, ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter’. Is it this that has not made us give up our pursuit of knowledge? Can we attribute our ceaseless journey of exploration to this? With the tenacious journey of discovery, fueled by the boundless aspirations of the human spirit and exploring mind, the confines of our understanding have been transcended. It has empowered us to unravel and untwine the intricate strands of the minuscule DNA molecule while simultaneously casting our gaze into the distant galaxies billions of light years away. In this celebrated tapestry of exploration, the human mind emerges as a beacon of curiosity, epitomising the eternal quest for discovery.

Earth is estimated to be 4.54 billion years old. That is 4540 million years old or 4540000000 lakh years old. Plus or minus 50 million years. The error rate of 50000000 years itself is an incomprehensible. And Homo sapiens arrived and evolved 300,000 years ago. Considering the time point at which humans arrived, in relation to the history of earth, is it even pragmatic to posit that man can and will understand nature and creation in its entirety? Given the vastness of the universe and man being a mere insignificant mortal, is it possible to fathom and make sense of what transpired before his arrival and what is likely to take place if he ceases to exist. Even if done, would it be prediction based on evidences? To an extent of profound comprehension? Or has man evolved so much that he is indeed capable of fruitfully deciphering the secret code to the cosmic drama?

So then, is man greatness personified? Is he competent? What is the way forward? This is not to be pessimistic but to blunten the edges of our pride and sharpen and hone our humility. 

So, if man were to be an ant, can he fathom and appreciate his forest, the universe?

Can a heart understand the body? Let alone the body, can it understand itself? Or is it just a sum of the parts? 

Man is playing a dual role in the theatre of the universe. He is an object, and part of the system and an observer too. Would that lead to appropriate understanding without prejudice or will there be any bias? Should a system be understood from the outside? Or can a part of the system also understand the whole system? Would that be a complete and wholesome understanding?

Can a part ever wholly comprehend the whole?

References - 

1. Deamer, D; (2005); “A giant step towards artificial life?”; Trends in Biotechnology

2. Bahadur K, et al.; (1963); "Synthesis of Jeewanu, the units capable of growth, multiplication and metabolic activity"; Vijnana Parishad Anusandhan Patrika

3. Gibson DG, Glass JI, Lartigue C, Noskov VN, Chuang RY, Algire MA, Benders GA, Montague MG, Ma L, Moodie MM, Merryman C, Vashee S, Krishnakumar R, Assad-Garcia N, Andrews-Pfannkoch C, Denisova EA, Young L, Qi ZQ, Segall-Shapiro TH, Calvey CH, Parmar PP, Hutchison CA, Smith HO, Venter JC; (2010); "Creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome"; Science

Deepika S, Dr. H S Nagaraja


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