A remote-controlled vehicle filmed a life form on the seabed this summer that was utterly strange and incomprehensible – at least to us. It was a gnarled, cornflower-blue blob blooming in the brown mud more than 1,300 feet under the sea.
The vehicle, which was being monitored by researchers aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel Okeanos Explorer, had sighted a number of blue spots that day in the waters southwest of St. Croix. The organism baffled scientists watching the live stream from the remote camera, and headlines announcing its discovery marveled at the strangeness of the creature, calling it “an alien blue slime” and a “mysterious creature.” resembling a drop”.
When humans encounter lifeforms that are unfamiliar or foreign to us, our instinct is often to steer clear of them. We are left speechless at how their body plan diverges from ours. Sometimes they confuse us or push us away. Reports of the blue goo described it as “formless, faceless, and limbless,” descriptors defined as opposed to ourselves, our faces, and our limbs. Before we have a chance to find out what blue slime could be, we’re told whatever it is, it’s not like us.
While writing a book about sea creatures, I found this language often applied to organisms living in the deep sea. About five minutes into an episode of the nature documentary series “Blue Planet II”, David Attenborough describes the deep sea as an “alien world”.
I understand his impulse. Some parallels are obvious. As I watch a transparent-faced barrelfish drift through the dark waters of the so-called twilight zone, the white specks of marine “snow” look remarkably like stars.
Sometimes this comparison to an alien world becomes more literal. A popular trope in deep sea discussions is that humans know more about the surface of Mars than the ocean floor. But this comparison assumes that mapping a place is all that constitutes exploration, and it minimizes our knowledge of what lives on that surface.
Of course, the deep sea is not our only target. We’ll call anything extraterrestrial: worms, sea slugs, fossil molluscs, even ancient humans. On some level, I understand that this is just a strategy to get readers interested in science. The more people know about blue mud, the more likely they are to care about deep sea conservation. But when an unknown species of sea cucumber is described as a shopping bag, I wonder if we’re not forgetting that the sea cucumber is a living creature.
Anthropomorphism is one of the easiest ways to connect with creatures – looking at organisms as reflections of ourselves. Anthropomorphism has gotten a bad rap as unscientific, but it’s a natural inclination and, in my opinion, it can be protective. It makes us care about the killer whale mourning its calf, the elephants burying their family members with leaves and dirt, even the octopus fleeing an aquarium for the freedom of the ocean. Ignoring or denying how we see ourselves in animals could enable our exploitation of them, for example through factory farms.
But anthropomorphism has limits, especially when considering creatures without faces, without nuclear families, without body plans that we recognize – like blue slime.
Instead of looking at these creatures as weird, I find it more rewarding to seek a connection with them through and because of our differences. Philosopher Timothy Morton views other species as “strange aliens”, arguing that intimacy should leave room for the strange, where all beings can be themselves, however incomprehensible they may be to others . Nature is beautiful and full of weirdos: drool-spitting velvet worms, floating sea angels, even opossums. Although these creatures may be foreign to us, we are also foreign to them. Dr. Morton proposes that this strangeness reminds us that we are all interconnected and that “every life form is familiar, since we are linked to it”.
I believe that building these connections with strange, confusing, or even bewildering organisms is a practice of radical empathy that you can try in your everyday life – offering openness, wonder, and attention to the incomprehensibility of other creatures. When you encounter a lifeform so unfamiliar that you find it uninteresting or repulsive, reach within to find glimmers of resonance.
Maybe, like a Deep Sea Yeti Crab, you look hairy, or like a house centipede, you share a small apartment. Or as a city pigeon, you can trace your presence in the United States back to colonialism.
Or maybe appreciation comes from your differences, like the mystical ease with which a starfish regenerates an arm or an amoeba gobbles up its prey. Who wouldn’t envy such bodily freedom? Perhaps dwelling on these differences can incite wonder – a reminder of how many strange lives, bodies and ways of being there are on this planet. As writer Talia Lakshmi Kolluri suggests, “Sometimes this incomprehensibility can lead to reverence.”
Appreciating weirdness encourages us to be better neighbors on a planet our species threatens to ruin. If people care about the fate of the sea cucumber, they can act to protect the deep sea from the imminent threat of mining. Changes can also occur in smaller everyday moments, like choosing not to squash the harmless house centipede in your bedroom, no matter how many legs it glides on and how its body makes you feel. feel. (Squashing creatures that might harm you or native ecosystems, like ticks and spotted lanterns, is OK in my book.) In my experience, the longer you sit with a creature, taking the time to really looking at it, the less strange it is. He becomes.
In the moments the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s camera zoomed in on the blue slime, scientists speculated that the creature could be a soft coral, a sponge or even a tunicate, noting that the mystery will likely linger until ’til they can retrieve a sample or further. analyze the video. Adult tunicates, which often look like clusters of neon macaroni, may be unrecognizable to us as animals. But in their larval form, tunicates resemble tadpoles. They have a flexible spine-like structure that helps them swim and find a place to attach themselves and spend the rest of their lives. Despite appearances, tunicates are more closely related to us than any other invertebrate – they’re our weird spineless cousins.
When I think of the blue paste, I think of how wonderful it is that we shared an ancient ancestor and found ourselves on such divergent evolutionary paths. It’s funny that we call these alien creatures; we only know them because they exist on this planet, alongside us – our entangled futures.