The scientist is curious about the world and how it works so he throws some lichen in the oven and cranks the temperature up to 434 degrees Fahrenheit. The lichen chuckles at him through the glass door. "You call that hot?"
The scientist walks away. "Let's see how you feel in seven hours," he says, rubbing his hands together in detached scientific glee. When he comes back, he opens the door, expecting to find nothing more than a humbled pile of blackened charcoal, but instead finds the lichen smiling.
"What's the hurry?" the lichen ask, "it was just starting to feel nice in here." 1
Undeterred, the scientist treks to the Arctic North in the dead of winter. The temperature is less than 100 degrees below zero before the wind chill is factored in and the scientist finds some lichen sitting out on a rock. He takes out a magnifying glass and trains an eyeball on them. The lichen, covered with nothing but frost, feel a bit embarrassed so they grope for a conversation starter.
"Pleasant weather we've been having this year, haven't we?" 2
The scientist is miffed. He journeys away from there, makes his way to a mountain pass bordered by huge boulders. He finds the deepest, darkest crack in a rock imaginable, a place where he's sure no life could exist. "It's impossible," he says to himself as he lowers his sample-collecting instrument into the crevice. "There's no plant that can photosynthesize in there. There's no animal which can find food! Life simply cannot exist down there!"
He lowers the instrument, scrapes the side of the rock, and slowly raises it to the surface.
"Do we come and scrape you off the side of your house just because we feel like studying you?" the lichen asks from the end of the scientist's instrument.
The scientist's jaw drops.
"It's chutzpa," says the lichen, "just plain chutzpa." 3
"You live forever and you're as tough as nails," the scientist says. "What's your secret?"
This particular sample has been around for 3000 years or so. It's seen countless generations born, pursue vanity, and melt back into the dust. It's seen empires rise out of obscurity, conquer enemies, and crumble into oblivion. It simply doesn't have patience for this youngster, about halfway through his 80 or so years, and his intrusive questions.
"I'm afraid you're just going to have to figure that one out for yourself," the lichen says.
"Okay," the scientist responds, "So that's how you wanna play, eh?"
He squishes the sample between two plates of glass and slides it under a microscope. "Hmnnnnnnnn," he says, examining the lichen's insides, and then "Aha! You're not lichen at all! You're just algae and fungi living together!"
At this last insult, the lichen feel compelled to state their position in no uncertain terms.
"Pardon us, but we most certainly are lichen. We may indeed be composed of algae and fungi, but we don't associate ourselves as such. If you are looking for those two individual organisms, you might search for them elsewhere. They cannot survive the harsh conditions, nor do they live nearly as long as us, and to tell the truth, we are quite offended at your insensitivity."
"What possible advantage could there be to algae and fungi living together?" he asks the lichen, stroking his chin.
But the lichen are fed up and won't even dignify a response. So the scientist begins to poke and prod and pinch the lichen to find his answers. He subjects it to all sorts of uncouth experiments until he decides that the fungi provide a nice safe home for the algae. They protect it from too much sunlight, absorb water for its use, and give it minerals and nutrients. The algae, for their part, provide the food for themselves and their fungal companions. They photosynthesize, turning sunlight, water, and Carbon Dioxide found in the air into sugar.
"It's brilliant!" he says, self-satisfied. They help each other. They add the strength of togetherness where the individuals couldn't hope to survive alone. "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours," he says to himself smiling. Then he coins the term "mutualism" to make the thing sound biological, 3,4 packs up his stuff and goes home.
The Lesson of Love
Together they are something greater.
The algae and the fungi, it seems, are made for each other. The two organisms can live separately and thrive, but when they combine forces, they can do things much greater than they could on their own. They live so long and thrive under such inhospitable conditions because they are more than just algae and fungi. They are something greater. They are lichen.
It's that understanding that lies behind every grouping of human beings as well. Basketball teams, marriages, corporations and armies are all examples of the same "I'll scratch your back and you scratch mine" type of mutualism that we see in the lichen. Anyone who's craned his neck to look up at a skyscraper or crossed an ocean in a Boeing 747 knows how much can be accomplished by the combined forces of the many.
But the degree to which these groupings succeed is often the degree to which the individual members are committed to making their first priority the group and only the second priority their own individual needs. At every moment in a marriage, a friendship, or a basketball game, the members are making a choice to unify or divide. Success over the long term is often intimately tied-in to these gradually accumulating choices.
If we, as members of social groups, will continually ask ourselves, "What's best for the family?" "What's best for the team?" "What's best for my people?" and ultimately "What's best for the world?" then we will eventually, over the long term, achieve the unity and wholeness which will allow us to accomplish the greatest things imaginable.
1 The ABC's of Nature: A family answer book by Reader's Digest editor: Richard L. Scheffel Copyright 1984 The Reader's Digest Association
2 Biology: Second Edition. Claude Vilee, Copyright 1989 by Saunders College Publishing, a division of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. –
3 Although the lichen has traditionally been thought of as a primary example of mutualism, there has recently been debate in the scientific community if the relationship between the algae and the fungus in the lichen is really one of mutualism or parasitism. Don't ask me what the philosophical implications are of this debate.
4 McCourt, Richard Matthew. "Lichen." Microsoft® Encarta®; 2006 [CD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
Photo: Microsoft ® Encarta® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.