The Love of Small Things


From little things big things grow (song co-written by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody). Yet, adoration of the individual hero and the ‘big’ person view of history prevails. In ‘Earth Emotions’ (May 2019) I see this trait as, in part, a failure to understand the symbiotic turn in life science. I argue:

Some humans have managed fairly easily to conceptualize being part of the ‘grand’ half of the symbiotic turn in thinking about life. It has been both familiar and comfortable to think that we are part of something much larger than ourselves (Gaia) as such a view is consistent with older traditions of thought. However, the other half, if I can put it that way, is to think about what it means to be a vital ‘part’ of something much smaller than ourselves (microbiomes). 

Our identity and life course is as much tied to microbes and microbiomes, as it is to macrobiomes (ecosystems). Our empathy for life must expand, both in the presence of big trees, and the now known presence of trillions of microbes alive within and on us. Symbiosis and empathy, at small scales, should not be strange bedfellows.

In my view … the human search for meaning, has already left the big tree, the big church and the ‘big man’ view of life. It has returned to where it all started … collaboration and association among the smallest possible units of life.

From Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World.  Cornell University Press, May 2019.


Artist’s impression of the detail of a human cell.