The Crown of Creation (?)


Here’s my current suggestion for the coolest animal (hint: it is not us, either despite of, or maybe because of, our awesome and dangerous brains and opposable thumbs):


Sounds impressive! Actually, despite sounding like the name of some hard-core conquering emperor, it means ‘slow step’ in Latin.

Less impressively, it is also known as the water bear.

But it is WAY more impressive than any marauding horde.

There’s a great chapter about them in the book “Animal Earth, the amazing diversity of living creatures.” I like this book; while limiting itself to animals (not plants, say, or bacteria, etc.) it has examples of all the major groups, and so despite our brain chauvinism, vertebrates are barely mentioned.

At 0.003 to 0.08 inches you can barely see it without magnification. They live in both marine and fresh water. These can be extreme environments and collections of water as thin as the layer of water on moss or on  “lichen encrusting a headstone.” There’s some likely in your immediate vicinity right now. Some are “herbivorous” eating plants and algal cells, others are predatory on small animals like nematodes (ubiquitous small worms). In marine waters they tend to reproduce sexually. In fresh waters, some are hermaphrodites and others can reproduce by parthenogenesis, meaning mother’s eggs just start doing their thing, no need for sperm. So, for those water bears there is no need for males.

But here’s the coolest part:

They undergo “cryptobiosis,” described as a kind of “death-like suspended animation.” The dehydrate over less than an hour and become what is called a “tun.” They use glycerol and a trehalose, a simple sugar to replace water molecules. The tun can tolerate:

Temperatures approaching absolute zero (much colder, it says, than liquid nitrogen)

Temperatures up to 120 centigrade or 250 degrees Fahrenheit (they can live in hot springs without being in this living dead condition)

“Huge doses of radiation”

A “hard vacuum”

Up to 600 atmospheres of pressure.


So, you think global warming is a threat to life on earth? Think again. Of course rats and roaches wont care either if our coastal cities are under water, our economies dive, millions starve from lack of water from loss of run off from major mountain ranges and destroyed habitats and ecosystems.

We will take down  ourselves, and a large percent of species on earth if we continue living as we have, but many will survive.

Earth has put up with more than we can dish out, and life has survived massive extinctions before (the book “The Sixth Extinction” will teach you about that, as will any good history of life on earth or a trip to a good natural history museum.)

This extinction is unique in that it is the first massive extinction done knowingly, out of pure greed and willful stupidity and self-deception, so some call it the Anthropocene (Latin for people fucked it up. Well, not exactly; it means the people’s period. Power to the people!).

So I worry less about earth or even life on earth than I shake my head at our arrogance and hurt for our kids and grandkids. Species come and go. Biology, evolution, is not romantic or sentimental. Life on earth  has the urge to survive, to grow and develop, to evolve, but it is not unidirectionally goal directed. We are. Let’s not fool ourselves. Our concerns about the environment are basically about us. Earth just finds us wordy apes petty, rude and annoying, not existentially threatening. In a few millions of years even our most toxic remnants will be dissolved, dissipated, and metamorphosed (OK some will take a few tens, or even hundreds, of  millions of years, but earth has deep time).

We’re not water bears; we’re not that cool. We are just an evolutionary experiment—fragile bodies with overblown, overly self-important, big wordy brains. Is there a chance that we will look up from our devices, our efficiencies, our clinging and our lusts, with our attention spans less than goldfishes, to see past our encrusted defense outer and inner mechanisms, be brave, and do the right thing? Judging from the popularity of certain republicans who thrive on greed, ignorance, fear and hate right now, I am not convinced. Judging from the reaction to them of many, to the wisdom of some I know and read and hear about, I am allowing myself some tiny sliver of hope.

Zen impartiality or not, I’d like my grandkids not to live in a seething hell of destroyed civilizations and ecosystems.


Brain Chauvinism: Do Thoughts Exist?

I have been reading “Beyond Words” by Carl Safina, one of many wonderful books out there on animal cognition. I highly recommend it on many levels to anybody and everybody, but it is particularly relevant to Zen practitioners, and I’ll tell you why. It forces the question: what is intelligence, at its most basic level? Is intelligence defined by having a brain or some semblance of free will? It is easy for us to relate to elephants in mourning as a sympathetic show of an emotional intelligence, a clear cognition and awareness, in a very different species, one we have not shared an ancestor with for tens and tens of millions of years, and so has evolved very complex brains quite independently of how our evolutionary path. The same goes for dolphins and wolves. Apes are of course our cousins, so maybe we are less surprised at their brainpower.

But what about living beings that aren’t mammals, that aren’t even vertebrates? We can easily see the intelligence of an octopus when it solves problems without a vertebrate brain. What about plants? There are a couple of books I have enjoyed on plant intelligence: “What a Plant Knows” by Daniel Chamovitz and “Brilliant Green” by Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola. There is clearly a kind of group mind cognition in social insects. Is there bacterial or protist intelligence? Certainly there is a staggeringly complex integration of a range of stimuli and response requiring a balancing act of inputs and outputs even in single celled organisms.

Why should a brain be necessary for awareness? After all, one can argue our bodies and brains are made of cells, and that these cells employ mechanisms that respond to input signals with responses that are not substantially different from the mechanisms used by single cell organisms. All such cellular mechanisms involve energy stimuli resulting in energy responses, as conditioned by biology and interactions with different energy inputs (colloquially called the “past” or “experience” or “the environment”).

Is free will needed for intelligence? It may be that our apparent free will is only a story we tell ourselves about these stimuli and responses as a survival mechanism. Maybe that’s part of why we developed language, to dress up our stories about our cognition, our responses, to better assuage us that we have some privilege, some substance that we don’t really have! It was once suggested to me the only free will we have may be the free will of attention, of, in Buddhist parlance, of waking up.

The view of some scientists is that the complexity of brains allows for ”emergent phenomena” like “true” cognition and awareness. That is certainly the case for awareness and cognition as we experience it with our brains, or insects or elephants and dolphins experience with their very different brains, but maybe that’s only because we are brain chauvinists. I am not convinced it is essential that there be brains involved for cognition, for awareness to occur. Do you have any idea of the complexity of signals, fluctuations of energy in molecules, changes in cell membrane electrical potential, the generation of new molecules and molecular conformations, required to get a paramecium or E. coli to move in response to light or nutrients, or for a plant to turn to the sun or release chemicals that signal danger to other plants? Are these really acting any differently than brains in a fundamental or substantial way? Clearly these behaviors of bacteria and roses are complex emergent phenomena.

Whether you buy the awareness and intelligence of the staph infecting your ingrown toenail, we have another prejudice besides brain chauvinism that is closer to home. It is the belief in the need for words to embody or create our thoughts, that the words in our heads are thoughts. Actually they are just our explanations, our stories about our responses to the energy state we find ourselves in at any given moment. That is why the title of the book “Beyond words” is so apt. Our mammalian cousins, with intelligence so much like our intelligence, do not use words to craft complex thoughts, communications and emotions.

Studies in human cognition show that much of what we interpret as our thoughts occurs well after the thought registers as brain activity. We dress up our brain’s perceptions and our brain’s responses with words, almost as an afterthought, as it were, to explain to ourselves, really to justify to ourselves, what we are doing, and why we are doing it.

Words are a supplement, a special skill we have, but it doesn’t mean that they always serve us well. Look at what we have used this tool for: greed and anger and the resulting hate and violence. Compassion and caring and anger and fear don’t require words. Look at our animal cousins! It may be that our word-filled brains are a failed evolutionary experiment. Perhaps we big-brained wordy mammals, as a corner of the universe unfolding, have unfolded in an evolutionary dead end. The universe is not sentimental. Mind will persist with our without hairless monkeys on the third rock from the sun.

Perhaps awareness is the true nature of being, foundational in a way that brains are not.

Minimally it behooves us as citizens of earth to open our minds to the minds of our living cousins. Perhaps more to the point we should understand the words in our heads are not our thoughts, just the story we tell ourselves about them. We need not attach to them and give them power over us.

I am not even sure that most of what we think of, or maybe any of what we think of, as thoughts has any substance at all. When is a thought a thought? When the MRI or EEG says so, when enough cell membranes depolarize in a specific pattern, before you are conscious of it, or when it becomes words in your head? Why is any of that “thought” other than we defined it that way out of convenience or arrogance? Out of a neurotic need to justify and reassure ourselves to ourselves?

If you are walking and take the next step without instructing yourself to do so with words, is that less of a thought than when you take it with words about that step in your head? What about the next breath you take? You can use words about breathing and you can control the rate and depth of your breathing, but you don’t have to. You will take a next breath either way. Is one breath more a thought than the other just because you clothed it in words and altered it?

Yasutani Roshi says in the book “The Three Pillars of Zen” that it’s all “makyo.” Makyo is a Japanese word used for hallucinations or other manifest delusional processes that are released during intense meditation. They can be frank sensory hallucinations, emotions, or complex delusional worlds we conjure up. They can be positive or negative. Indeed, then, perhaps the whole of samsara, the manifest universe, is makyo as Yasutani suggests. Perhaps all thoughts, all experience, all existence that occurs in the world of the six senses, are makyo as Yasutani Roshi suggests.

The complexity of our brains, the words that appear in our heads, is just a set of chemical reactions, of the energy fluctuations that form the substance of our perceived reality, the universe, even of awareness itself. But awareness doesn’t need our “big boy words.” We are brain and thought addicts. That is not only true for intellectuals and nerds. What we define as a thought is the brain chauvinistic tip of the iceberg of a vast web of energy transformations. Do we really need to privilege thoughts over awareness, or is that the essence of delusion? do we need to believe our stories about our thoughts?

What do you think?