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Down the Steps
You walk ten steps down on a stairway shaped from breakwater rocks straight into the water, which is flat and still, right at the top of the tide. Sound recedes with gravity and light fades to soft green as you dip beneath the surface. All you can hear is your breathing.
Soon you are in a sponge garden, in a jumble of shapes and colors. Some of the sponges have the form of bulbs or fans, growing upward from the seafloor. Others spread sideways over whatever they find, in an irregular encompassing layer. Amid the sponges are what look like ferns and flowers, and also ascidians (with a silent “c”), pale pink spout-like structures with enamel patterns inside. The spouts resemble the downward-curved air funnels on the decks of ships, though these spouts face in every direction. They are covered by all manner of tangled life, often so encrusted that they appear to be part of the physical landscape in which things live rather than organisms in their own right.
But the ascidians make small shifts, as if asleep and half sensing you as you pass. Occasionally, and always startling me a little, an ascidian body half-collapses in place and visibly expels the water held inside the animal, as if with a shrug and sigh. The landscape comes to life and makes its own comment as you go by.
Among the ascidians are anemones and soft corals. Some corals take the form of a cluster of tiny hands. Each hand has the regularity of a flower, but a flower that grasps at the water around it. They clench and slowly open again.
You are swimming through something like a forest, surrounded by life. But in a forest, most of what you encounter is the product of a different evolutionary path: the plant path. In the sponge garden, most of what you see are animals. Most of those animals (all except the sponges themselves) have nervous systems, electrified threads that stretch through the body. These bodies shift and sneeze, reach and hesitate. Some react abruptly as you arrive. Serpulid worms look like tufts of orange feather fixed to the reef, but the feathers are lined with eyes, and they vanish if you come too close. One can imagine being in a green forest, and finding the trees sneezing and coughing, reaching out hands, glimpsing you with invisible eyes.
This slow swim out from shore is showing you remnants and relatives of early forms of animal action. You are not swimming into the past—the sponge, ascidian, and coral are all present-day animals, products of the same span of evolutionary time that produced humans. You are not among ancestors but far-removed cousins, distant living kin. The garden around you is made of the topmost branches of a single family tree.
Farther out and under a ledge is a tangle of feelers and claws: a banded shrimp. Its body, partly transparent, is just a few inches long, but antennae and other appendages extend its presence at least three times as far. This animal is the first I’ve mentioned that might see you as an object, rather than responding to washes of light and looming masses. Then a bit farther still, on top of the reef, an octopus is stretched out like a cat—a very camouflaged cat—with several arms extended and others curled. This animal watches you, too, more overtly than the shrimp, raising its head in attention as you pass.
Matter, Life, and Mind
Something was dredged from the depths of the North Atlantic by HMS Cyclops in 1857. The sample looked like seafloor mud. It was preserved in alcohol and sent to the biologist T. H. Huxley.*
The sample was sent to Huxley not because it seemed especially unusual, but because of an interest, both scientific and practical, in seafloors at the time. The practical interest stemmed from the project of laying deep-sea telegraph cables. The first cable to span and send a message across the Atlantic was completed in 1858, though it lasted only three weeks, when the insulation failed and the signal-carrying current leaked away into the sea.
Huxley looked at the mud, noted some single-celled organisms and puzzling round bodies, and stored the sample away for about ten years.
He returned to it then with a better microscope. This time he saw discs and spheres of unknown origin, and also a slime-like substance, a “transparent gelatinous matter,” surrounding them. Huxley suggested that he had found a new kind of organism, of an exceptionally simple form. His cautious interpretation was that the discs and spheres were hard parts produced by the jelly-like matter itself, which was alive. Huxley named the new organism after Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist, illustrator, and philosopher. The new form of life was to be called Bathybius Haeckelii.
Copyright © 2020 by Peter Godfrey-Smith