LICHEN DISCOVERY, AND PHI
The other day Eric in New York sent a link to a The Atlantic article concerning a new discovery about lichens. I'm always curious about anything dealing with lichens because they're such common, attractive and mysterious organisms.
"Mysterious," because for a long time it's been known that every lichen is a composite being composed of two, sometimes three, unrelated organisms. A fungus joins with an alga or cyanobacteria in a symbiotic relationship, the alga or cyanobacterium producing the lichen's food through photosynthesis, while the fungus provides the lichen's main structure and shelters the photosynthesizing alga or cyanobacteria cells. The resulting lichen looks and behaves very unlike the beings its made of. You might enjoy browsing the lichens we've run across during our travels, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/lichens.htm
Though lichens have been much studied for about 150 years, only this year was it discovered that many if not most common, conspicuous lichens, in addition to the constituents described above, also host yet another kind of fungus, a yeast that forms a thin crust on the lichen's body. The yeast crust produces compounds that in ways not fully understood seem to be important to the lichen's formation and well being. One lichen species found to have a yeast component was the bushy, yellow Wolf Moss that was so common on higher-elevation tree limbs during our time in Oregon's Siskiyou Mountains, in 2009. You can meet that lichen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/wolfmoss.htm
The The Atlantic article can be freely accessed online.
Media coverage about the discovery often focuses on the fact that for 150 years the world's scientists have overlooked such a fundamental fact about common lichens. The story is even more dramatic because the main scientist making the discovery was a non-standard PhD who, not qualifying for university entry in the US, had to get his degree in Germany. The The Atlantic article linked to above is entitled, "How a Guy From a Montana Trailer Park Overturned 150 Years of Biology."
So, the amazing fact that lichens are composed of two or more different, unrelated organisms has been made even more mind boggling with that discovery of a new constituent organism. This stirs up old, unanswered questions about how the identities of living things are tied up with their bodies. Is my essential self diminished if I lose part of my body or mind? Is the "ant" the individual with six legs or the whole colony? Is the Earth a living organism itself, Gaia? Maybe the whole Universe? For me, this lichen discovery is another hint that the Universe evolves toward ever greater diversity as it also trends toward ever greater integration of parts.
Good old Eric in New York also directed us to a recent New York Times article on consciousness, also freely downloadable.
There we learn about serious researchers trying to figure out what consciousness is. According to one theory, backed up by very dense math, just about everything with some degree of organization might display glimmers of consciousness, even a thermostat. One assumes that any plant would be more conscious than a thermostat, and a squirrel with a highly organized brain more aware than a plant. A unit for measuring such instances of "subjective self" is proposed, the phi.
I'm gratified to see these two articles. It seems absolutely right that lichens should be possessed of more integrated parts than we'd thought, because the Six Miracles of Nature conceives of the Universe and mentality as evolving exactly toward greater diversity and integration of parts -- the Six Miracles being outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/
Similarly, having a respected scientist with a lot of math for support suggest that maybe even thermostats might possess a glimmer of phi, makes me feel less alone with the thought often expressed here that other creatures besides humans have consciousness and feelings, that there may be an Earth-organism called Gaia, and even that all things of the Universe may be just one thing evolving just like the lichens, toward ever greater diversity, with ever greater integration of parts... with us as part of that elegant and wonderful blossoming.