And we are big (spoken word unspoken)
When I was young, I learned about the selfish gene.
Lying in bed at night, cuddled beneath the covers, my dad’s voice, smooth, would soothe me to sleep with talk about the complexity of the human genome, the spiral shape of a DNA helix, the way forces of natural selection would make harmful mutations die out with their host, but allow random beneficial mutations to proliferate, spread through a population, cause such changes within a species that one common ancestor could play grandfather to a bonobo, a rhesus monkey and a human, or a brussel sprout, mustard seed and stalk of broccoli.
Every night, as he’d wax poetic about the marvels of evolutionary biology, only taking a break from this multi-year lecture series to throw in some astrophysics and history, I’d fall asleep to the letters A, T, C and G, amazed at this world we live in, developing this profound love for the theory of evolution, for the belief that random chance and probability could shape a planet comprised of rock, water and protozoa into the beautifully varied community of life that exists today, from the highest peaks of the Himalayas to the lush richness of the Amazon to the eerie, black depths of the dark ocean floor.
We worshipped Dawkins and Dennett, the unusual versions of childhood heroes my brother and I clung to, and they illuminated if not the why, then at least the how of human existence. Evolution was as close as I got to having a religion, but it wasn’t one because it does not require blind faith, it encourages you to question, to dig, literally, to understand the origin of our species and the complex history of the genetic matter that existed, mutated and evolved to construct this current world of ours. This community of species we share the planet with, a community that has lost members like the dodo, the Kauai O’o bird, the Caribbean monk seal, the Baiji white dolphin. We read God’s Debris and the God Delusion, debunked the logical proof of God put forth by Aquinas, read the bible only as literature, and occasionally laughed at the more outlandish elements of certain stories — Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt for looking over his shoulder, Joseph’s brothers’ inability to recognize him when he became pharaoh of Egypt, Noah’s Arc and the idea that two of every species alive today could fit into one boat without all eating each other, the blood in the river and the frogs and the leeches; but we leeched some lessons anyway, in Hebrew school and in discussions at the dinner table, what my parents called the “point” of their atheist version of Judaism.
But one day, I realized that evolution, the almighty natural force that I revered with the core of my being… evolution isn’t acting on me.
If natural selection were happening unhindered, I would be dead, would’ve been dead by age 10. There would be no Mallory Smith, age 22, Stanford graduate living and breathing and moving about and making friends and reflecting on the origins of the universe, there would just be a tombstone in the grass of the cemetery off Wilshire Boulevard, or some ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean, however my family would choose to honor a life that had no chance to ripen.
I was born with two defective copies of the CFTR gene, one mutated copy from each parent. You have 1 copy of the gene, and you get a heterozygote advantage, an increased fitness because of a lower likelihood of dying of cholera. But with two copies of the gene, you’re salty, you’re sick. The old doctor went, “the child will soon die whose brow tastes salty when kissed.”
Cystic fibrosis. It’s deadly. Or at least, it can be. Or at least, it was.
Keeping myself alive is a full-fledged mission, enlisting all of my energy and hours of my day, every day, requiring 9–10 hours of sleep, 16 pills with a hearty breakfast, packing in the calories to overcome the malnutrition caused by pancreatic insufficiency. Vitamins and minerals, probiotics and antibiotics, gastrointestinal medications, a rinse of my sinuses with saline and steroids and antibiotics. Then comes the session with my airway clearance machine; I put on my vest, plug in the tubing, turn it up and shake shake shake the hell out of my lungs, dislodging the thick sticky mucus clogging my airways. I do this for thirty minutes and inhale a series of medications, bronchodilator to open airways, hypertonic saline to irritate the lungs and cause coughing and to hydrate the mucus, an enzyme that chops up mucus and thins it out, a steroid to reduce inflammation and then, for another half hour, an antibiotic to fight the chronic deadly infection eating away at my fragile, scarred lungs.
And that’s just the morning.
Throughout the day, some pills four times a day. Some three times a day, some every time I eat, some thirty minutes before eating. Another round of chest percussion with the vest midday, plus breathing treatments with the nebulizer. Then the entire morning routine again at night.
About four hours a day I dedicate to the simple act of taking a breath, fighting the billions of bacteria overtaking my lungs and clearing out the mucus so I don’t feel like I’m breathing through a straw with a boulder weighing on my chest. Staying alive, for someone with CF, requires active and constant effort against natural selection, requires a grand fuck you to that force which, left to its own devices, would have us suffocated from respiratory failure before adolescence.
So what does my survival come down to, what is responsible for my ability to trump natural selection? Medicine. Medicine gives me the gift of life. Medicine exempts me from the forces that paved the way for humanity to emerge, that shaped life on Earth for millions of years, since the very first cell sprung to life in the primordial soup.
We’ve domesticated evolution, and I get to live as a result.
How is that fair? Why do we, today, get to override evolution? What will that do for the future of our species? More important, what does that mean for the millions of other species on this planet who don’t have that unfair advantage, who still exist at evolution’s mercy?
I want to live and I want people the world over affected with illness, ridden with deadly diseases, to live, to survive, to thrive, and to reproduce, creating imperfect little perfects, I want us to be viewed as worthy enough to pass on our genes, even if we’d be outcompeted by those whose genome is “better” in a world where natural selection still reigned superior.
Christian philosophy tells us, from dust we came and to dust we shall return. We each are an infinitesimal speck on the spectrum of geologic time, insignificant by nature, in nature. Who are we to think this life matters?
But Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “The very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life.” He says, “When I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up- many people feel small, cause they’re small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.”
So when we think of it this way, the question changes. It becomes: who are we to think this life doesn’t matter?
Somehow, out of dust each and every one of us has emerged, out of the belly of a universe with no intention, no purpose. We are existence by chance, yet out of dust have emerged intelligent minds, compassionate hearts, striving bodies that have collectively created a moral human consciousness, a desire for purpose and meaning and civilization and beauty and knowledge and connection. We have surpassed our primal roots, our physical body’s simple priority of survival, instead dancing within the delicate and intricate web that overlays human society, imposing culture and values and shame and doubt on what would otherwise be just another animal seeking food and shelter in the wild.
We have surpassed evolution and surpassed our ashy origin and what are we doing? What am I doing, I who was given the gift of surviving against insurmountable odds and a DNA sequence that spelled out death from day one?
What can we do to deserve this life? The fact that we feel driven to ask and answer that question proves our ability to do more with this life we are given than idle by, taking from and trashing our world.
We must not idle. As a species we take from our surroundings, usually to the detriment of the community of life. We cut trees, drill for oil and then spill it, emit noxious gases that warm the air, acidify the sea, and bleach coral reefs, we build towering homes in the hallways of nature, buildings that blockade growth and regeneration.
As individuals, those of us with privilege inadvertently take from those without it. We take from the destitute farmers of Latin America who grow our coffee, we take from the child laborers in Chinese sweat shops who make our clothes, we take from those we wage war against, we take from people who cannot afford food here within this country.
If we’re not giving, we’re taking. We do not live in a vacuum. There is no net zero impact. There is no neutral. Take the right stance, or you’re taking the wrong one. Have a positive impact, or you’ll have a negative one.
My life is a miracle because I should be dead. Your life, even if you’re healthy, is a miracle, because your existence is the result of stars exploding, solar systems forming, our Earth having an environment hospitable to life, and then, finally, millions of highly improbable events accumulating over millions of years to bring you, a capable and conscious bag of stardust, to the here and now.
Acknowledge that miracle. Existing is a rare gift, a privilege. It isn’t a right. Think of all those atoms that never ended up inside a human body.
So pick something, do something, to respect that miracle. Step up to the challenge of making your own meaning out of mere matter. Let the whole, the human, be altruistic, be greater than the sum of the parts, the selfish genes of our genome.
Set an intention and get after it feverishly, frenetically. Give back what we’ve taken by paying it forward, save a life, smile at a stranger, climb a mountain leaving nothing but footprints, inspire a child, take care of your body, bring happiness through laughter, plant a tree, and sometimes, just breathe and exhale a little bit of calming energy to your environment.
Give back in whatever small way you can, any time you can, because we are not small. No one of us can do everything, but all of us can do anything. Do it because we have survived, and that is a miracle. Do it because why wouldn’t you? Do it to justify your life.