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09 May, 2008

There's More To Life Than You Can Imagine

David Attenborough is someone I admire immensely. I saw an episode of his latest series Life in Cold Blood the other day and I was impressed all over again by the incredible complexity, diversity and beauty of Life. It's enough to make you feel sorry for those poor people who believe in gods.

There was a frog in the episode. The male, who looks about a quarter of the size of the female, is too small to get his arms around his mate's body, so he can't hang on while they have sex. So the little guy exudes glue from his belly and sticks himself to the female's back! What's more, these frogs live in a hostile, arid environment and they need to be underground sheltering from the heat rather than frolicking on the surface like moonstruck calves. So the female frog digs a burrow, with her prospective mate still glued to her back, and they mate underground.

Now this isn't the weirdest thing in Nature. Not by a long chalk. But who could have imagined such a way of life? Not us, for sure. Our imaginations are just not that good. Which is why I feel sorry for the poor god worshippers. Since none of their beliefs about the universe are real, they are limited to what people can imagine. Worse, they are limited to what people once imagined at the time their sacred texts were written, and are now fixed (barring a little embellishment by theologians from time to time). Of course, the old fantasists certainly had their moments – the world on the back of a turtle, twenty-seven virgins for every martyr, the creation of the world happening just a few thousand years ago – but mostly it is all stultifyingly dull and simplistic. Childish, actually.

When you compare these ancient yarns with what Nature shows us, there really is no comparison. Consider the fractal beauty of a tree, the bizarre but elegant 'standard model' of quantum mechanics, the existence of shrimps that pick up grains of sand and drop them into holes in their heads to use as ballast, the grand, swirling ballet of stars, dust and gasses in a galaxy, the deep mystery of electromagnetic fields, the way the brain uses cilia in a spiral cochlear to sense different frequencies of sound, the many kinds of blood chemistry that exist for the transport of oxygen around so many different kinds of bodies, the existence of quarks, the sheer number of things – atoms, stars, brain cells, species of nematode worm – and the incredible sizes of things – the distance from here to the Oort cloud, the spacing of molecules in a quartz crystal, the 'walls' of galaxies that span the universe, the nano-fibres on a butterfly's wing that give it such iridescent colours.

It is all so breathtaking and astonishing and none of it, none of it at all, was dreamed of by the people who fantasised about gods instead of looking with open minds and receptive hearts at what is really out there in the world.

And the little guys in the picture above are pine processionary caterpillars - 16 of them - photographed by me this morning. They walk around in nose-to-tail processions like this at this time of year, looking for a good place to pupate. Now which religious text ever imagined anything like that!

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