Ten Million Aliens
endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. Final words of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. It is a thought that has had me enthralled all my life. We are not alone in the universe: the idea that launched a million works of science fiction. Fact is we are not alone on our own planet. Far from it. We could hardly be less alone. We are one of a crowd, part of a teeming throng. We are not alone even when we are alone: whether we are counting the great garden of bacteria in our guts – alien life forms that keep us alive – or the tiny arthropods called Demodex mites that live in the follicles of our eyelashes.
Because we are one of many. Life is not about the creation of a single perfect being. An ape is not a failed human: it is a perfectly valid and fully evolved creature in its own right. A monkey is not a failed ape, a lemur is not a failed monkey, a mouse is not a failed primate, a fish is not a failed mammal (and as I shall show you later, there is no such thing as a fish) and insects, nematode worms, corals and priapulids are not failed vertebrates. The meaning of life is life and the purpose of life is to become an ancestor. All forms of life are equally valid: the beautiful, the bizarre, the horrific, the obscure and the glorious.
We humans are different from the rest in some ways, but only in some ways. One of these ways is our need for a myth to get us through the night: a myth to carry us through the vast distances of interstellar space: a myth to transport us through the endless aeons of time in which life
has been lived on earth, a myth to reconcile us to our true evolutionary position. Which is a cosmic afterthought.
We used to cherish the myth that we are made of quite different stuff from the animals: there are animals, and then there’s us. Darwin exploded that one, of course. He showed us that we are all animals, but that is too difficult a truth for us to face in its rawness and reality. So we have created another myth. Benjamin Disraeli, speechifying about Darwin’s horrifying truth, said: “The question is this: is man an ape or an angel? I, my lord, am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these new-fangled theories.”
But evolution is a fact and we humans – let’s dispense with Disraeli’s “man” nonsense; we’re all in it together, men, women and children – needed to come to terms with our apeness, our primateness, our mammalness, our vertebrateness, our animalness. So we came up with perfectibility: the idea that evolution had a goal, that goal was to make a perfect creature, and that perfect creature is lucky old us. The famous image of evolution – monkey, ape, hunched proto-hominid, fully evolved and upright modern man – encapsulates the myth as vividly as a cross, a crescent and a seated Buddha encapsulate the great world religions. The whole process of the Animal Kingdom, starting with unicellular blobs and passing through insects, “fish”, amphibians, reptiles and birds, culminates in mammals, and mammals carry us through primitive egg-layers and marsupials, to creatures of ever-greater magnificence and complexity, to the primates and then the apes, until the ladder finally ascends to wonderful, glorious, magical us.
Which is great. Except of course that it doesn’t.
The mite that lives in the follicles of your eyelashes is as fully, as exquisitely, as perfectly evolved as you are. And on that thought, I shall set out to describe the endless forms of the Animal Kingdom,I
to encounter the ten million alien species with which we share our planet. To do so righteously, I must write a book that has no beginning and no end, but like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, simply continues.