Here’s a depiction of Ikaria wariootia, a worm-like animal that lived 550 million years ago, that some people believe to be the “earliest common ancestor” of humans and most other animals …
Seriously, everyone has two grandmothers and four great-grandmothers, some of whom went through very difficult circumstances to get us each to where we are. Some of us are lucky to have known them. Personally I only have stories. In 1901, one of mine, alone and destitute, took a boat from Calabria to America to strike out for a new life on her own. Surely everyone has many such stories.
Further back, I had some that survived the Potato Famine, some dirt-poor peasants in Ancient Rome, some in the Iron Age, some hunter-gatherers, some early hominids. Fast rewind to small shrew-like mammals living in the underbrush while Tyrannosaurus Rex stomped around overhead. Not theoretically but literally—an actual great-grandmother shrew living in the shadow of monsters, and surviving the extinction event that killed them.
Hopping a steamship to America seems comparatively tame.
Since stumbling on these stories about recent microRNA and fossil discoveries revealing all this, my personal self-conception has begun fundamentally to change. Instead of thinking of “myself” as primarily a brain & central nervous system that “has” a body and a gut, it seems the gut came first, making me essentially a gigantic, highly-evolved worm with a big lump of neural tissue on top that helps it move around and get food on dry land. (And do philosophy and poetry and math. And build civilizations.)
This thought began for me maybe 10-12 years ago when I read an article in Psychology Today about a doctor who observed that his teenage depression patient for whom he had tried anti-depression medications with little effect, finally recovered after re-establishing a healthy digestive biome. The article hypothesized that while formerly they had assumed only an incidental connection between the brain and gut, it now appeared to be more of a “superhighway of information” flowing between the two at all times.
Early worms had neural tissue that allowed them to navigate and find food, from which our brains eventually grew. It is not unreasonable to assume that our own gut today retains those structures, (vastly larger and more complex), participating actively in our mental activity, not just reflecting it as the emotional “gut feeling” we all get from time to time. I don’t know why this realization coming in my 60’s seems so significant to me, or what practical significance it may have. Of course I’ve always known it on some level intellectually, but lately I feel it. That’s the crux of all this I’m sure.
One of the more amusing aspects of it is noting the different ancient creatures different research teams claim to be the earliest common ancestor, and the vastly different depictions they produce for their articles. But it’s not just an idea. It’s real. They all trace back give or take 500 million years—and one of them, (or a different, similar one), is my actual, real-life, no-shit grandmother, struggling to survive in the mud of an ancient seabed.
Grandmother Ape, Shrew, Worm, Primordial Microorganism. We retain bodily structures from every phase of our evolution, and there is something to be learned from all of them. Lately however I’m particularly enthralled with Grandmother Worm, and it’s changing my self-perception deeply.