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?

Ur Wisdom

Wisdom, as my Grade 5 teacher Miss Pollock use to say, is knowledge plus experience, and the judgment to be able to blend them together successfully -not the most scholarly way of defining it, perhaps, but useful nonetheless. I always took her to mean the ability to pick and choose from what was available -the ability to combine unrelated items to create a cake, say. Create synergisms that before were only facts. Ingredients.

Call me a flower-child -or a withering bouquet if you prefer- but there is something about the Gaia Hypothesis that has a whiff of the profound. Or at the very least, a soupçon of wisdom. Of course Earth is an organism -inasmuch as Life, and its substrate Earth, are both synergists that interact to each other’s benefit. Not very Darwinian -no apparent competition between individuals for reproductive success- I admit, but nonetheless compelling. Why does everything have to have a purpose anyway? I can’t help but remember Allan Watts, the Buddhist-leaning philosopher so popular in the 1960ies, who once asked what the purpose of dancing was -surely it wasn’t to get from point A to point B in a room… The purpose of dancing, he said, was dancing -it needed nothing else, not even music, to continue. And its meaning was embedded in the activity itself.

But why am I going on about Gaia now? Well, as these things happen, I was scrolling through some essays on Aeon online, and came across a thoughtful article that brought back memories of a more youthful, hopeful me:

James Lovelock, a chemist and later, the main proponent of the Gaia Hypothesis, caught the attention of NASA in the early 1960ies when it was trying to detect if there was life on Mars. ‘Lovelock approached the problem indirectly, arguing that there was no need to send rockets to the red planet… He argued that  simply looking at the atmospheric composition of a planet would enable us to know whether that planet was likely to support life… This led to his great insight. The Earth is not just teeming with life. The Earth, in some sense, is life. Earth is an organism!’

His good friend, the novelist William Golding (The Lord of the Flies), suggested that his hypothesis be called Gaia, after the ancient Greek goddess of Earth, and Lovelock went public with the idea in the early 1970ies, and eventually published his book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth in 1979. He also teamed up with the microbiologist Lynn Margulis, who was particularly interested in symbiosis and had published a major work on the topic in 1967.

Of course, Gaia attracted major criticism and often contempt. Richard Dawkins (of The Selfish Gene) ‘could not accept that things could happen for the good of the group simply because they were for the good of the group. Plants don’t produce carbon dioxide, he said, for the sake of the Earth. Either it was a byproduct of their functions, or it must be of immediate benefit to the plants themselves. Any other interpretation was contrary to a Darwinian view of life.’

Some of the criticism even targeted their qualifications. ‘Neither Lovelock nor Margulis were evolutionary biologists nor, for that matter, geologists, paleontologists or academics from other disciplines with an expertise in Earth’s history and overall functioning… For them, the chief feature of life was balance, stability, or what is known as ‘homeostasis’ — that is, the maintaining of balance through dynamic interacting processes. Earth is in homeostasis so it is living. On the other hand, for an evolutionary biologist such as Dawkins, Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection is all-important. Life is produced by natural selection, by the competition between individuals for reproductive success. Evolution has no goal or ‘telos’ of making Earth a better place for life. What is more, as far as Dawkins and other evolutionary biologists were concerned, Earth was not produced by natural selection, and hence it is not itself a living thing.’

Gaia was almost more Religion than Science -more hope than fact, perhaps. I was entranced by the idea when I first came across it shortly after the book was published. I had received my Fellowship in Obstetrics and Gynaecology only a few years before, and I suppose that meant that many of my patients were younger, and more… open in those halcyon days -more enlightened, I suspect, than the several years in my training program had allowed me to be.

I still remember the day when an attractive young woman sat demurely in the corner of my waiting room. Short auburn hair and rather prominent horn-rimmed glasses, she was quietly reading a book she’d brought, thinking she’d have a long wait. None of these things would have attracted my attention had she not been wearing a fluorescent green tee shirt with a picture of an obviously pregnant female with flowers for hair. Not only that, but as I crossed the room to greet my patient, I saw that the pregnant bulge on the patient, as well as the flowered woman was actually a planet when she stood up.

I must have stared rather intently at the tee shirt, because the patient -Janna, I think it was- smiled and said “Gaia,” matter-of-factly -almost as if I were so old I needed an explanation. And yes, she was reading Lovelock’s book.

I have to confess that I’d never seen a tee shirt quite like hers, but I tried to pretend that things like that were all in a days’ work.

“I guess an obstetrician would know all about Gaia, eh?” she said with a mischievous little wink.

“The Mother Earth goddess, you mean?”

She was quite a short, slender young thing, and she nodded as she looked up at me with big brown eyes, no doubt magnified by her glasses. “More the symbiosis thing…”

I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I waited till we were both seated in my consultation room before I pursued the concept. “You mentioned symbiosis? “ I asked, wondering if she’d really  meant ‘symbolic’ -the Mother part, at any rate.

She nodded and sighed contentedly. “I’m 6 months pregnant,” she said and her big smile reappeared.

“Congratulations,” I responded with a smile of my own. “Very much in keeping with Lovelock,” I added, although I hadn’t read the book yet.

“More Margulis, don’t you think?” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.

“Oh? Why’s that?” Although I knew Margulis was involved in the Gaia thing, I didn’t know much about her contribution.

“Symbiosis,” she answered, and then when I looked puzzled she added, “You know, organisms coming together for mutual benefit…?” At first, I don’t think I understood until she added “My boyfriend and I -we were both depressed…”

Then I blushed. Maybe that’s why I remember the episode after all these years.

So, the Gaia Hypothesis -is it scientifically valid: verifiable, refutable, quantifiable? Probably not, but maybe it’s a dream, a luscious metaphor, to get us through the ever darkening night of human meddling. We needed that in the 80ies… I think we still do.