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Autumn 2003 - Act•ionLine

by William Mannetti | Autumn 2003

Bacteria Liberation

Appearances, as we all know, incline to deceive us. Take stromatolites. Lackluster clumps, column-, dome-, or sphere-shaped, none taller than a city fire hydrant, solid as rock or maybe a hardened gumball, they appear to just sit for a living.

But look deeper and you see layered homes to, and the bodies of, bacteria, with photosynthesizing blue-green cyanobacteria atop photosynthesizing purple bacteria atop countless additional microbes, most of whom live off the produce or bodily remains of those above, the whole shebang, a complex collective.

Stromatolites represent the oldest, and the ancestors of all contemporary, life on Earth. Getting their start 3.6 billion years ago, give or take a few hundred million years, they bulked as the biggest kid on the block, forming vast reefs in the Proterozoic oceans. Their heyday ended 600 million years ago, but they hang on today in several watery locations, (most famously in western Australia, where 3000-year-olds reside), the only beings to have survived the five major, and ten lesser, extinctions recorded in Earth’s ledger of life.

As monuments to Ancestor Number One, stromatolites deserve a certain nod of the head, a tip of the hat at least. But there’s more to their story, and our debt to them, greater. As some of the world’s first photosynthesizers, cyanobacteria created free oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, without which no oxygen-breathing animal — no beetle, turtle, tyrannosaur, or animal rights activist — could ever have come to be. What’s more, by removing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they kept things cool enough to prevent the loss of Earth’s water to the far beyond. The implications of this act concern not only the seawater coursing through our veins but also the slipping and sliding of the continents, which could not occur were it not for the lubricating effects of water. Bacteria therefore gave us a leg — and the ground — to stand on.

They also call us home. Not simply between our teeth, under our fingernails, or inside our intestines, they are part of our very cells. A couple or three billion years ago free-living bacteria jumped into a nucleated cell (or were ingested by it without being digested), got comfortable and stayed, eventually to wear the name “mitochondria.” Yes, they are the powerhouses that nestle inside the cell but outside its nucleus, the prime movers in the conversion of food to energy, energy that drives nearly all cell activities.

Without them, we would die almost instantly, and even though mitochondria have their own DNA and metabolism, they’d do the same without us. We are, therefore, consortia, each interdependent member of which is a different organism with its own genome.

The lessons here are several. Besides reinforcing the old chestnut about judging a book by its cover, stromatolites demonstrate against neoDarwinian pronouncements on conflict and competition as biological imperatives, since they show us by example that lasting strength comes of cooperation. Even more important, bacteria-are-us blurs all biological boundaries. The taxonomic distinction of species as a scientifically delimited entity, for example, goes up in smoke, and with it the very idea of an isolated and elevated status, which is to say all human pretensions to exceptionalism.

One might expect animal rights advocates to take these lessons to heart and take them in hand to build the case for better treatment of nonhumans. Yet some self-described animal rights organizations do the opposite. An example is the effort, enthusiastically pursued by one organization in particular, to parade (in posters, calendars and sundry live photo ops) certain animal-friendly female performing artists and models — and the fleshy parts thereof — with the apparent goal of turning hearts by turning heads. It is by no means incidental that these subjects emphasize their genitalia. Indeed, that is precisely the lure meant to attract a crowd, success being measured by the count of craning necks.

Whether for or against, one must agree this is a case of objectifying women, of reducing them to a circumscribed body, or more precisely, body parts. In its defense, the chief spokesperson for the organization most committed to it offers (Orwell fans, hold onto your hats), “sex is fun.”

One hesitates to spoil the witless gaiety that lofts our spokesperson happily above harsh earthly matters, but the untoward consequences of sexual objectification, where they fail to prick the conscience, at least claw hard at the shins. Note: sexual objectification devalues an already-demeaned group (females), demands aesthetic totalitarianism (which diminishes all who fail to meet its standards), and politically legitimates all other kinds of objectification (making it impossible — if one hopes to be consistent — to condemn the turning of, say, animals into hors d’oeuvres).

Finally, objectification, by definition, fixes tangible boundaries that separate one entity from another — the antithesis of life-as-a-seamless web. Hollywood-style sexual objectification carries this reductionism to even narrower extremes. It traces a hierarchical line within another, a body within a body (the sexually ideal form within the human species). It then purports to speak on human sexuality, and expects us to play along. (It’s fun, remember.)

Which returns us to stromatolites. Among much else, bacteria are life’s great innovators, and their list of inventions includes sex: Although they reproduce by budding or dividing in two, opportunity or need has ever induced them to simply pull in some DNA from other nearby bacteria (even dead ones) or enlist the help of viruses to take in their genes (or those of other bacteria) in a sexual exchange that results in new bacteria without need of reproduction per se.

The exchange of genetic riches among bacteria both affirms their freedom and assures their survival through the deepest sort of cooperation, one necessarily free of any hint of hierarchy. Of course, it is not, to be clear, their sexual behavior that defines their freedom (liberation is never a simple matter of libido, unrestrained or otherwise), but rather their egalitarianism.

We likely shall never match bacteria in their complete disregard of hierarchy, but coming close is worth the effort. Who (nonhuman or human), after all, would not be better off without our destructive self-delusion of biological exceptionalism and its vacuous spin-off, our eagerness to identify people in sexual terms? We cannot hope to rid ourselves of either, however, so long as we parade people as sex objects. Animal rights advocates who join that parade because it appears to help the cause deceive themselves into believing justice can be gotten piecemeal or, worse, by trading off one group against another. It cannot work that way, of course, because justice, like life itself, is indivisible.

—William Mannetti is president and co-founder of Animal Rights Front, an all-volunteer, activist organization based in Connecticut.

William Mannetti

Act•ionLine Autumn 2003

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