A wander through the wonder of what we are
Recent blogs queried the boundaries of things, where one thing really ends and another begins, which is fine for rivers and stones and air, but what about ‘me’? I don’t just mean my body, I mean ‘me’. Am I just one thing? A thing comprising more living cells than there are stars in our galaxy? What makes those cells together just one thing called me? And when I cut my toenails, is there a bit of me in the bin? I remember after microsurgery on my spine, the surgeon came by to visit, and picked up a small bottle of fluid containing fragments of intervertebral disc that had been nudging motor nerves to my leg. ‘Do you want this?’, he asked. I know some people like to keep their gallstones, but no … very no! And yet I realised I was looking at something that had been part of me. Not nail trimmings that are obviously dead, but something from inside of me that used to matter.
No – don’t ask me about my last surgery. Some things are never to be seen again!
Losing bits of your body doesn’t mean losing parts of your self. This is an innate sense most of us have, that the ‘me’, the real identity, is not the body. And yet here we are in a world that looks at the body and gives you an identity, that struggles when the physiology is indeterminate, and feels the need to do something. Just to give you a name, just to separate you out from everything else, to make you individual, even in a sense to isolate you and insulate you. This runs absolutely counter to my own developing philosophy and understanding of belonging as part of the whole.
And yet I think, therefore I am (cogito ergo sum). So surely I am separate, boundaried and finite?
Maybe not one thing
There is an idea, with good basis and not new, that our cells are themselves a symbiotic evolution, resulting from a process called endosymbiosis, where one simple cell comes to live inside another. Complexity arises when it adds advantage to more simple forms. Set aside your personal ideas on evolution for a moment, because we all know that things change and happen quite by chance in nature, and that sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t, and I don’t want any ideas of a god or gods, or intelligent design, to get in the way of simply thinking freely.
It happens. And endosymbiosis can be induced, and can be seen to be advantageous, simply by putting the right prokaryotes (simple single-cellular organisms) together and watching them form self-reproducing eukaryotes (complex cells with identifiable internal structures) such as we are made of in galactic quantities.
Let’s now slip sideways to slime moulds. Yes, slip, slide … because they are fascinating and challenging. Basically, these are colonies of unicellular (eukaryotic) organisms that live together, co-operate, specialise, move together like complex organisms, split, divide, co-operate and seem to make sense of the world – but especially together. Does each have a mind? Do they have a mind together? Does one cell have intelligence? Do they have a kind of intelligence when together? And then – why are we so different from them? Are we also, in a sense, colonial? We all began as a single cell, meeting another single cell in a particular context of pure chemistry. Both cells were complex eukaryotes, but nonetheless, just cells. They didn’t know what to do, they simply behaved together according to chemical instruction sets within a specific environment.
Here, stem cells are interesting. Most of our cells have lost the bits that would allow them to diversify, probably because there is no advantage left. A differentiated cell stays differentiated whereas a stem cell does not. And when we lose a finger, unlike a fingernail, a new one does not regrow. Lucky salamander: lose a leg or a tail, and another one will grow back. Regenerative biology is a dream yet to be realised, and so hard to achieve, even in getting a severed spinal cord to reconnect. Probably there are enough of us around to reproduce sufficiently for this not to hold unique evolutionary advantage. But at some point in our early development, cells always specialise because of where they are in the embryo, and stay that way. Intelligence?
Singularity and self
Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. What we call success and failure, or normal and abnormal, is this combination of instruction set (genes) and environment (largely chemical). The end result is unique, since even genetically identical twins have their unique sense of self, however alike their DNA. But how singular is each body, if we are a colony of co-operating cells, and each cell itself originates in symbiosis? Is there intelligence, not just in ‘me’, but in my arm, or in an organ, or in a cell? Is ‘mind’ just brain-neurological activity, or is it acting elsewhere in this colony as well? Perhaps the brain just the only place where linguistic memory is held. What about cell memory, muscle memory, even organ memory – these too are information storage. It seems to be well-attested, and has some support in the accounts of a few transplant recipients gaining ‘memory’ or traits not their own. Further, memory (cell information) appears to be epigenetically transferred between generations: trauma among Holocaust survivors altered their gene expression in such a way that it became inherited through that single cell that starts life over. If our cells remember, and together hold any kind of shared or combined memory, where is memory in relation to mind? I can’t answer these questions, but the fact that they remain valid questions shows how unclear we are about what we do know.
And what about the singularity of our bodies? Sometimes the zygote (fertilised ovum) splits to create two embryos, identical twins. Identical? Each has a sense of self and there can be big differences, including sense of gender. Sometimes twin embryos recombine to form one person, with a chimeric twin, or even a parasitic twin. And many or most of us have a degree of mosaicism, such that the DNA is our cells is not the same everywhere. So does DNA create identity? A singular identity? Can we have more than one mind or intelligence? Or is self-awareness simply a complex colonial identity? My body seems to be driven by more than ‘I’ or what I call self. And biologists would certainly say anyway that our bodies as organisms are the result of self-organisation.
There is a distinction to be made between identity, intelligence and biology, in which I think we should be careful. My sense of self, my identity, includes my personal awareness of my biology, and uses my intelligence. Your idea of what I am includes your perception of your and my biology, and uses your intelligence (not mine). Perhaps the important message is: do we use these ideas to bring us closer, or to separate ourselves?
Self-organising systems are not necessarily doing anything intelligent. You can see them in schools of fish and murmurations of flocking birds, as well as create them in computer components, inter-communicating electronic modules, and technological development (from basic ape toolmaking up to modern human communications systems). More simply, we see the emergence of complex patterns in the simplest of things, such as crystalline structures, magnetisation, or sound patterns (cymantics). Self-organisation happens, and especially in complex systems, leading to emergent structures and behaviours. We might think that an ant colony is much more sophisticated than the slime mould, but is there actually more intelligence? Here is where I believe intelligent design (some external ‘greater’, if not different, intelligence has ‘made’ or created us and everything there ‘is’ – which itself is a semantic nightmare) comes unstuck. Please do explore self-organisation and complexity theory, because they are a key reminder that we are too often simply linear thinkers. A leads to B; C causes A to lead to B. There is only A, B, C and maybe D. If D exists, then there must be an A and a B for it to be so. Sometimes this is true, valid and useful, but sometimes it is dysfunctional.
How did we get here?
It may be a fun little journey to start with a question like ‘what is identity’ and travel through endosymbiosis to complexity and chaos, but I think it does serve a purpose. Gods and intelligent design, creation and order, linearity and binary division of things, naming and defining – do all give us props to create and maintain a world view that seems to work. But they can get in the way if they are given a status of knowledge, as if that were something finite and attainable. Rather, our thinking, our philosophies, our conceptualisations can only ever be working models, and getting stuck with them is far worse for us all than being able to adapt, relearn, throw it all away and start again when they don’t fit.
I don’t know if it even makes sense to ask who ‘I’ am, but what I do get a feeling of, is that being aware, observing, staying open to new ideas, constantly learning, is a whole lot better than sticking with (or inventing) easy answers. Our whole existence is unbelievably complex, and becoming more so all the time. That means we are not in control of much at all, certainly not our living environment, our planet, or even our society, and to say we understand it is very premature. We may never do so, but most of all we should never stop half way and plant a god in the ground to worship instead. That god need not be a divine intelligence, it could just be one way of seeing the world to create a local sense of order, through a scientific method, a philosophy, a culture, or a religion. Extrapolating any of these to create higher or lower orders of existence, intelligence or levels of heaven simply will not do. The observation of ‘order’ or of ‘beauty’ proves nothing but a synergy between the way we are and the way other things are.
And so it is that this week I read about intersex people (that’s 1 to 2 per cent of us) who may identify with one binary gender or another simply because that is only what has ever been offered. I think I shall always return to the open question of my self-identification, had all alternatives been available right from birth. My natural development is a frequent outcome, as are intersex identities. In the light of the above, are we all ‘mistakes’, or the kind of diversity that give complex self-organising systems their resilience?
How we got here, whether in this little conversation, or in a more ontological sense, doesn’t actually matter that much, unless that idea invalidates the existence of another person in order to elevate us as superior or better. And that, as world events continue to remind us, is where our real problems lie.