Bacterial Motors

February 18, 1992|By ROBERT BURRUSS

Kensington. -- Suppose someone were to discover that chimpanzees use computers when we aren't looking. Suppose, too, it was discovered that the chimpanzees also build their computers. Not likely, right? Even less likely is that bacteria might build and use electric motors.

In fact, certain bacteria do drive themselves about with the power of electric motors. Until that discovery several years ago, electric motors and rotary motion were thought to be in the exclusive province of human beings, further evidence of the power of the rationality we prize and worship.

Among the motor-driven bacteria are ones that live in our guts. The little motors, many of which are used by each bacterium, have tiny armatures and shafts, plus universal joints and even thrust bearings. They are fueled by the sugars that we have eaten.

These little electric machines in our guts are yet another item in the list of embarrassments that has been growing ever since Nicolaus Copernicus figured out that the earth is not at the center of the universe -- and that humanity is not the focus of some Great Plan.

Bacterial-made electric motors. Quite likely, the bacterial family first built their little engines more than half a billion years ago. And we thought we were special for having invented the things -- for the first time in the history of the world no less, we said. And now we find that electric motors were in our guts back when we were still living in trees.

The existence of bacteria-scale electric motors raises questions: Who is in the bacterial driver's seat? What awareness is directing the action of those motors?

Is a bacterium a living thing? Or is it simply a little machine, one that is guided by some automatic principle that is as yet beyond the comprehension of our great brains -- as were electric motors until relatively recently?

The Ant's a Centaur in his dragon's world, said Ezra Pound. Pull down thy Vanity, he said, it is not man who made order and grace -- and, we have to add, electric motors.

Pull down thy Vanity. Can we be sure that the bacterium doesn't have even other things, too, half a billion years of other creations which our great brains of high reason have yet to come even close to discovering?

Pull down thy Vanity, and learn of the green world this is thy place. Maybe bacteria also have intent and philosophy and worldview and thought and physics and sadness and happiness -- and maybe even that high province we claim as exclusively human: mighty Consciousness itself.

Pull down thy Vanity. We are the descendants of creatures that had electric motors half a billion years before we thought such things were our own unique creations.

Yes, descendants. Half a billion years ago, our ancestors weren't that far removed from bacteria. Maybe we really were the first to invent the electric motor -- but back when we were still bacteria, back before we were smart enough to take foolish pride in laying claim to being the first to invent this or that.

Electric motors by natural selection. Motor-driven bacteria. And we thought that electric motors were products of the light of our great reason, the same brilliant shining reason that is personified by the gods of Western tradition, who stand in contrast to the demonic personifications of the dark and chaotic forces that drive evolution and underlie all things related to what we call reason.

Human culture and human bodies and bacterial electric motors derive from the same blind and irrational sources: the disparaged, dark and perhaps random and forever-incomprehensible underpinnings of the world which drive the continuation of our species and the development of our societies, and which assemble electric motors for bacteria.

We worship reason -- without reason! We worship reason while we create ourselves by yielding to the naked electronic and animal chaos that is at the heart of matter. The sex act re-enacts the primal, chaotic and nonrational origins of electric motors.

Robert Burruss is an engineer and free-lance writer.

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