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Do you Know *What I am*?

David Cowles

Dec 1, 2023

“I am my own great-grandmother (‘Eve’). Eerie…not to mention incestuous.”

I came to be sometime during the month of December, not nine months later, as is usually supposed. On a cold winter’s day, two chromosome-deficient sex cells, one from a biological woman and one from a biological man, fused to form a single, chromosome-sufficient cell, me.  

So, I am a unicellular eukaryotic animal (a cell with a nucleus). That nucleus houses my genome (DNA), combining genes inherited from my father's cell and from my mother's cell. Absent random mutations, this DNA molecule contains all the information needed to generate the organism that is currently writing and typing this article. So, I am an organic molecule (DNA).

4 billion years ago, give or take, a bunch of prebiotic molecules on a newly formed planet (Earth) combined to form the first DNA molecule. Every life form on Earth is powered by DNA, and, as far as we know, DNA evolved on Earth only once. All terrestrial organisms, even me, are descended from this one primordial DNA molecule. “Hello Eve! Or would you prefer I called you ‘Granny’?”

Unicellular animals usually reproduce asexually. After cell division, there is no more ‘parent cell’ per se, just two ‘daughter cells’, but those daughter cells, ab initio, are both identical to the sublimated parent cell. Therefore, we could just as well say we are left with two ‘parent cells’. 

So I am the primordial DNA molecule whose clones power all life on earth. According to James Joyce (Ulysses) Hamlet was his own father’s ghost; now I find out that I am my own great-grandmother (‘Eve’). Eerie…not to mention incestuous. 

Immediately, primordial DNA used its protein-building capabilities to construct a moat and an outer membrane (cell wall) to protect itself from the environment. The membrane is sufficiently porous to permit alimentation, elimination, respiration, and hydration. 

We call this fortified entity a cell. All terrestrial life consists of cells, singularly or in various aggregations, and all cells embody copies, however altered, of the primordial DNA molecule. Thus, all cells are direct descendants of the primordial cell, me.

The primordial cell was probably a close ancestor of what we now recognize as bacteria. I hear that on the grounds of certain posh primary schools, it is common for bullies to berate their victims, crying, “You bacterium!” Well, I am a bacterium and proud of it – deal with it!

I am a bacterium, and I also provide shelter and succor to other bacteria. Billions of Eve’s descendants are swimming around in my intestines right now…and thank God for that! I literally could not leave home without them.

About a billion years later—who’s counting?—one bacterium engulfed another, probably with the ‘intention’ of consuming it, but for some reason, it changed its ‘mind’. In the terminology of Anaximander, the grandfather of Western philosophy (c. 500 BCE), these two bacterial cells ‘gave each other reck’. They traded ‘Dog eat Dog’ for ‘Live and Let Live’. The wolf lay down with the lamb, and the Judeo-Christianity ethic was realized. “Blessed are the peacemakers – they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)  Shalom!

In the words of Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca), this was ‘the start of a beautiful friendship’. The two bacteria formed a symbiotic relationship that ultimately gave the world T-Rex, bonobos, and me! So, don’t let anyone tell you that Love doesn’t make the world go ‘round; it sure does!

When primal great grandad reproduced, he produced cells already fitted with DNA harboring nuclei. Sensing a new lifestyle opportunity, other bacteria wandered across the porous external membranes of eukaryotic cells. Should I compare these host cells to black holes…or to Hotel California? Either way, what goes in does not necessarily come out.

Like feudal vassals, these bacteria yearned for the relative safety of life behind cell (manor) walls. Unlike Benjamin Franklin, they willingly traded independence for security. But it was not such a terrible bargain!

These late-coming bacteria set up shop in the cytoplasmic sea that surrounds a host cell’s nucleus. Cytoplasm, a biotic soup, is insulated from the cell’s external environment and from its internal nucleus and other organelles by a network of protective lipid membranes. 

But would these host cells allow these invading freeloaders to enjoy the comforts of intracellular life at no cost? We’ll never know. The hosts’ generosity was never tested because these ‘invaders’, like medieval craftsmen, immediately went to work, making themselves useful to their landlords. Smart cells! 

This second wave of in-coming bacteria became mitochondria, the primary energy-producing organelles in a modern eukaryotic cell. Numbers vary, but the average cell harbors (and exploits) about 1,000 of these mitochondria. 

Yet, this is not exactly ‘slavery’. In exchange for their labor, these mitochondrial bacteria are given a lease that covers them and their descendants in perpetuity… i.e., ‘for as long as they both shall live’ (host cell and mitochondria, that is). For better or worse, the fates of the host cell and its tenants are bound together inextricably.  

As the original host cell divides, each new cell clones the original cell’s nucleus and mitochondria. My career as a solitary unicellular organism lasted only 4 days; then I began to divide: 2 x 2 x 2… I gradually transitioned from a single cell into a ‘society’ of cells, initially in the shape of a hollow ball. I am that ‘Bucky Ball’

This ball of undifferentiated cells developed into an organism in which different cells perform vastly different functions (e.g., skin cells vs. blood cells), all in service of a common multicellular host. I am that host

I have two cousins: one is an attorney, the other an accountant. The attorney could have been an accountant, and/or the accountant could have been an attorney, but they weren’t. They could both have become accountants…or both attorneys. But in what world do we need more of either? (Do you know…) Most, of course, died long ago, outlived by their superannuated host.

Like cells, my cousins differentiated, more or less randomly and more or less unconsciously, to maximize their value to ‘society’.  They were not motivated by desire to maximize value; the laws of nature (economics) gently guided them to their choices. Of course, they were both free to join the circus instead, but that’s why evolution works best when a population is large enough to welcome, or at least tolerate and survive, random deviations from the norm. 

Today, that ‘primal society’ (me) has grown to more than 30 trillion members, i.e., cells, each a fundamentally independent life form, cooperating with one another in service of their meta-host. I am each one of those cells…and now I am their meta-host as well. 

If I live to normal life expectancy, more than 100 trillion cells will have participated at one time or another in the ‘phenomenon of me’. (Thank you very much!) Most, of course, died long ago, outlived by their superannuated hosts. Did they die of natural causes? Old age? Nope! They killed themselves…and they did it for me. Most of the dearly departed committed a form of suicide called apoptosis

How come? So far as we know (but who really knows?), they were not depressed. Apparently, trillions of my fellow travelers are prepared to sacrifice their lives for me. It’s an awesome responsibility! 

Cells continually ‘monitor’ themselves, scanning for transcription errors, mutations, and environmental stresses. When they judge a particular flaw to be ‘beyond repair’ or an environmental stress to be ‘life-threatening’, they ‘do the right thing’ for the welfare of the organism as a whole (me); they kill themselves! 

To be or not to be – it’s the question posed by every cell at every moment of its life. Hamlet thought he was on to something…and he was - too bad, his famous meme had already been copyrighted by a bacterium some billions of years ago.

So let’s trace our progress. We started with a single DNA molecule (me); DNA became a cell (also me), and that cell acquired a nucleus and mitochondria and built a network of fortifications for its protection. I’m cooking with gas…but we're not done yet.

I reproduced, resulting in millions of more or less exact copies of me. What could be better than that? These related cells formed a society (me). As in other societies, members (cells) of this primordial society differentiated their functions (chose various jobs), all in the service of the society itself (also me).

Ultimately, this society evolved into a meta-organism (me), and so our story ends, right? No way! Now it’s time for meta-me (I’m 11 today) to produce my first male sex cells (me); many, many years from now, one of those sex cells may find a female partner and the entire process start over again. Meet Me. Jr. – I’m a little cranky right now; I just woke up from my nap.

And what about meta-me? Well, I’m a member of multiple societies. I have a job, I live in a neighborhood, I belong to a town, a state, or a nation, I’m a member of a church and a bowling league, and of course, I am a citizen of the world. If past is prologue, one or more of these societies will evolve into its own meta-organism (me?).

So, now do you know ‘What I am’? Hope so…’cause I sure don’t.    


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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