To hold, as it were, a mirror up to Nature

Who am I? No, really -where do I stop and something else begins? That’s not really as silly a question as it may first appear. Consider, for example, my need to remember something -an address, say. One method is to internalize it -encode it somehow in my brain, I suppose- but another, no less effective, is to write it down. So, if I choose the latter, is my pen (or keyboard, for that matter) now in some sense a functional part of me? Is it an extension of my brain? The result is the same: the address is available whenever I need it.

Ever since my university days, when I discovered the writings of the philosopher Alan Watts, I have been intrigued by his view of boundaries, and whether to consider them as things designed to separate, or to join. Skin, was one example that I remember he discussed -does it define my limits, and enclose the me inside, or is it actually my link with the outside world? I hadn’t really thought much about it until then, but in the intervening years it has remained an idea that continues to fascinate me.

Clearly Watts was not alone in his interest about what constitutes an individual, nor in his speculations about the meaning of whatever identities individuals think they possess by virtue of their boundaries. There was an insightful article in Aeon by Derek Skillings, a biologist and philosopher of science at the University of Pennsylvania entitled ‘Life is not easily bounded’:

‘Most of the time the living world appears to us as manageable chunks,’ he writes, ‘We know if we have one dog or two.’ Why then, is ‘the meaning of individuality … one of the oldest and most vexing problems in biology? …  Different accounts of individuality pick out different boundaries, like an overlapping Venn diagram drawn on top of a network of biotic interactions. This isn’t because of uncertainty or a lack of information; rather, the living world just exists in such a way that we need more than one account of individuality to understand it.’ But really, ‘the problem of individuality is (ironically enough) actually composed of two problems: identity and individuation. The problem of identity asks: ‘What does it mean for a thing to remain the same thing if it changes over time?’ The problem of individuation asks: ‘How do we tell things apart?’ Identity is fundamentally about the nature of sameness and continuity; individuation is about differences and breaks.’ So, ‘To pick something out in the world you need to know both what makes it one thing, and also what makes it different than other things – identity and individuation, sameness and difference.’

What about a forest -surely it is a crowd of individual trees?  Well, one way of differentiating amongst individuals is to think about growth -a tree that is growing (in other words, continuing as more of the same)- and contrasting it with producing something new: as in reproduction. And yet even here, there is a difficulty. It’s difficult to determine the individual identities of any trees that also grew from the original roots -for example from a ‘nurse’ tree lying on the ground with shoots and saplings sprouting from it.’

But it’s not only plants that confuse the issue. If reproduction -i.e. producing something new– counts as a different entity, then what about entities like bacteria? ‘These organisms tend to reproduce [albeit] by asexual division, dividing in half to produce two clones… and, failing mutation and sub-population differentiation, an entire population of bacteria would be considered a single individual.’ -whatever ‘individual’ might therefore mean.

And what about us, then? Surely we have boundaries, surely we are individuals created as unique entities by means of sexual reproduction. Surely we have identities. And yet, what of those other entities we carry with us through our lives -entities that not only act as symbiotes, but are also integrated so thoroughly into our metabolism that they contribute to such intimate functions as our immune systems, our weight and health, and even function as precursors for our neurotransmitters and hence our moods? I refer, of course, to the micro-organisms inhabiting our bowels -our microbiome. Clearly ‘other’ and yet essential to the functioning person I regard as ‘me’.

And yet, our gut bacteria are mostly acquired from the environment -including the bacteria colonizing our mother’s vagina and probably her breast milk- and so are not evolutionarily prescribed, nor thereby hereditarily transmitted. So, am I merely a we –picking up friends along the way? Well, consider mitochondria -the powerhouse of our cells. They were once free-living bacteria that adapted so well inside our cells that they, too, are integral to cell functioning but have lost the ability to survive separately; they are transmitted from generation to generation. So they are me, right…?

Again I have to ask just who is me? Or is the question essentially meaningless put like that? Given that I am a multitude, and more like a city than a single house, shouldn’t the question be who are we? The fact that all of us, at least in Western cultures, consider ourselves to be distinct entities -separate individuals with unique identities- makes me wonder, about our evolutionary history.

Was there a time when we didn’t make the distinctions we do nowadays? A time when we thought of ourselves more as members of a group than as individuals? When, perhaps sensing that we were constantly interacting with things outside and inside us, the boundaries were less important? Is that how animals would say they see the world if they were able to tell us?

Does our very ability to communicate with each other with more sophistication, create the critical difference? Is that what created hubris? In Greek tragedy, remember, hubris -excess pride and self-confidence- led inexorably to Nemesis, retributive justice. Were poets in that faraway time, trying to tell people something they had forgotten? Is that what this is all about?

I wonder if Shakespeare, as about so many things, was also aware of our ignorance: ‘pride hath no other glass to show itself but pride, for supple knees feed arrogance and are the proud man’s fees.’

Plus ça change, eh?

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