The Volvox Condominium

volvox-condominium-webA single cell floats through an endless ocean, its identity, firmly lodged in the center of its cytoplasm—its nucleus. There is no confusion. From time to time the cell divides, leaving progeny to float off according to the ocean’s currents, never to be known and seldom to be encountered again by the parent cell. The offspring are usually perfect duplicates of the original with only occasional tiny differences. But in the ocean of lime, one of those mutative differences results in a unique cell which divides its nucleus to release its progeny into the world, but never quite lets go. The offspring remains tenaciously attached to its twin and partner.

This unprecedented event is duplicated again each time the original cell divides—a genetic habit which turns out to be a comfortable arrangement for both parties. Certain advantages are created by the proximity of cells and the new creature thrives and multiplies. Cells divide and cluster. A colony of near identical cells functioning as a single unit is created. Let’s call it a Volvox. It is a bridge between an ocean of acellular algae and an almost inconceivable multiplicity of complex species.

The potentials are extraordinary, almost unspeakable, especially for Volvox, which have no lips. This new creature is a cooperative organism, a cellular condominium selected for its capacity to survive in a different ecological niche from the multitude of isolated “volvox-parts” which continue to drift separately across the water. But deep within the nucleus of that first original volvox cell, questions have formed:

Once there had been a true, clear individuality, but now what could really be said to comprise identity as a part of this new creature? Is a singular cell still an entity living in association with other similar entities for a common purpose, or has its identity as an independent autonomous creature been forever compromised? What is a truly personal (cellular) concern, and what are the directed actions and concerns of the greater Volvox which has been created?

The cell had become an unwitting partner in the world’s first condominium development and it wasn’t entirely happy with the situation. Its consciousness (such as it was) began vacillating back and forth between its normal independent cellular state and a new unfamiliar modular consciousness.

Was it becoming part of a much larger whole, the totality of which is almost inconceivable? Or was its identity just slowly dissolving, diluted to insignificance in a great soupy ectoplasm? Observed from an outside point of view (if there was such a point of view) the larger Volvox entity might be considered either a single creature made up of parts, or a colony of individuals coming together for mutual convenience.

The moral implications alone were shattering: Must each aspect of the greater whole then have concern for the welfare of the entirety or had individual responsibility been completely abrogated in a vast new multi-cellular consciousness?

If interconnectedness implies biological responsibility then what of the other creatures with which Volvox was linked (albeit more distantly)? What of the hapless euglena or the rudimentary bacteria which break down raw materials into bite sized chunks on which a Volvox might feed?

And that single cell evolved from agglomerations of bacteria-like elements whose sum was now the elemental cell itself. Where are the edges of identity and responsibility? What of the ocean in which a Volvox swims, the Earth beneath it and the sky and sun above? There is undoubtedly interaction and interdependence—some kind of connection. Could this imply a still higher level of identity?

The idea of such a great self was dizzying, even exalting and the cell was for a moment tempted to embrace the concept of still larger and larger selves.

But envisioning the vastness of this new greater identity the cell glimpsed just how thinly its tiny consciousness might be spread through so vast a whole. Vertigo overwhelmed the cell. The nucleus rushed a message to its mitochondria—its internal medicine cabinet—ordering an extra large dose of its endogenous cellular painkillers.

Falling into a semi-conscious stupor, the cell settled into a twilight consciousness, dreaming of greater selves that spanned oceans, rivers and mountains…solar systems and galaxies.

The dream spread throughout the entire Volvox condominium—a dream carried down through generation upon generation of multi-cellular creatures: a dream that lasts as long as multi-cellular creatures swim the seas, walk the land, and fly through the skies of this verdant planet.