“Man with all his noble qualities… still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”
– Charles Darwin
Remarkably soon after the Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, life emerged. Though the details are fuzzy, it seems a burst of energy struck a pond of primordial chemical soup, energizing a collection of compounds just enough to form RNA, the first strands of life.
RNA thrived in this early world because of its ability to do something that has become the hallmark of life as we know it, communicate. It is a tireless messenger, able to quickly and accurately send instructions through a variety of chemical signals, while also storing information that can survive its own death by passing on to near-perfect copies of itself.
However, soon after its arrival came a more stable molecule that did an even better job of passing information from one generation to the next, DNA. Because of this advantage, DNA would supplant RNA as the driving force of life on earth. But RNA survived, probably because it was a little more nimble, able to evolve, adapt and zip information around a little quicker.
The pairing of these two great structures under one house, DNA and RNA living together in the same cell body, formed the foundation from which all life on earth has sprung.
The strands of DNA and RNA inside each of your cells are in constant communication with each other. RNA, guided by instructions given from DNA, sends messages to every part of a cell and directs the creation of proteins, a vast array of tools that the two have crafted over time to extend their reach and enable them to manipulate the world around them. Using these tools they have built a bevy of different cells to live in that give them more protection and more mobility, ultimately enabling them to create on larger and larger scale.
Encased in these cells, DNA and RNA explored even further and encountered other living things with their own unique attribute, like mitochondria which were very good at making energy. They found out that there was some mutual benefit to them coming together inside one cell body, which ended up giving the pair a sizeable advantage over everything else that was around.
Together DNA and RNA would build ever more elaborate structures to house themselves in and experiment with a number of different kinds of cell bodies, each with different arrangements and quantities of parts. Eventually it had the pieces needed for the next big leap when it figured out how to join more than one cell together, creating multi-cellular life.
In their fancy new multi-cellular bodies, they continued to spread out and adapt to the changing conditions they encountered on earth. For billions of years they experimented with different features for their hosts, like veins and bones and eyes and lungs and limbs, each with new attributes that allowed them to survive in new environments or give them more information about the world or just roam further faster. The by product of all this creation is all the plants and animals that we know.
Eventually they stumbled upon just the right set of instructions to give birth to a species of ape that had a much more rapid and robust way of sending messages around, human beings.
Prior to, information was still being passed slowly down the line from one generation to another with very limited storage capacity, making any kind of change very time consuming. Our brains allowed us to build up, pass on and accurately store an immense amount of detailed information. What came with it was the ability to reflect on ourselves, our place in the universe, and what all of it is for.
Yet, in all our endowed wisdom, we forgot what we are, how we came to be, and just how fragile and tenuous our existence is. We placed far more importance on the stories we told about imagined values of wealth and prosperity than on the world we live on and the biology that allowed us to be.
Now we richly embodied products of creation are under attack from our primordial ancestor, a clever strand of viral RNA that has forced mankind into hiding. Yet even now, as it assaults ourselves and our way of life, it is still sending a message that we ought to listen to. That is that while we may reign supreme in our tiny pond that is the animal kingdom, we are, and always will be, subjects of our world. Humbling.