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’: https://aeon.co/essays/what-constitutes-an-individual-organism-in-biology

‘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?

Is Everybody a Petard?

Sociology is certainly interesting; it turns out that none of us are normal -well, perhaps more revealingly, there is no normal ‘us’. We are, at best, data points spread out on a rather amorphous Bell curve, vaguely generalizable depending on the homogeneity of the group chosen, but often unrepresentative of populations further afield.

And yet, why should that be a surprise to anybody who has vacationed in a different hemisphere -or, for that matter, simply walked through a poorer section of their own town? Or mingled with members of another ethnic community? Or even talked to a different age group…?

We seem enamoured with reducing people to numbers -statistics- as if by accumulating and analyzing them appropriately, we have proven something… Undoubtedly we have demonstrated something, but what? And how applicable is it over time and culture?

I have to admit that I have long felt that the generalizations were overdone, and in the current era of rapid dissemination of ideas that seem as stable as clothes in a washing machine, not terribly relevant. But the idea was reintroduced to me in an essay in Aeon.com by Kensy Cooperrider, a cognitive scientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago: https://aeon.co/ideas/what-happens-to-cognitive-diversity-when-everyone-is-more-weird

His contention was that ‘On all continents, even in the world’s remotest regions, indigenous people are swapping their distinctive ways of parsing the world for Western, globalised ones. As a result, human cognitive diversity is dwindling… This marks a major change of course for our species. For tens of thousands of years, as we fanned out across the globe, we adapted to radically different niches, and created new types of societies; in the process, we developed new practices, frameworks, technologies and conceptual systems. But then, some time in the past few centuries, we reached an inflection point. A peculiar cognitive toolkit that had been consolidated in the industrialising West began to gain global traction. Other tools were abandoned. Diversity started to ebb.’

The toolkit he is referencing is the use of WEIRD -an acronym meaning the use of Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic students as fodder for the studies that were being published in the sociological literature. He references a famous paper published in 2010 led by the psychologist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia entitled ‘The Weirdest people in the World?’ https://aeon.co/essays/american-undergrads-are-too-weird-to-stand-for-all-humanity

And in that paper, Henrich claimed, ‘researchers in the behavioural sciences had almost exclusively focused on a small sliver of humanity: people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. The second was that this sliver is not representative of the larger whole, but that people in London, Buenos Aires and Seattle were, in an acronym, WEIRD.’ They were definitely not representative of the world at large, and yet since this type of group was being referenced constantly, the psychologist Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, felt it might be how otherwise disparate groups were beginning to see themselves; where he found cross-cultural differences, ‘they were more pronounced in older generations. The world’s young people, in other words, are converging.’

One example, as I have mentioned, is our obsession with numbers to quantify and measure things. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, and yet it does represent a unique weltanschauung that ignores other, no less valid, ways of engaging with everyday reality.

Another might be our fixation on Time -that artificial construct we append to every action, whether actual or impending. Again, for those of us who are tied to schedules it seems not only appropriate, but also necessary. How else could we survive and prosper in the life in which we are enmeshed?

There are other examples of the stamp our culture has had on far flung peoples, but the one that intrigues me the most is language. The currently evolving Lingua Franca (a strikingly ironic oxymoron) could reasonably be argued to be English. And why might that be important? ‘English is an egocentric language whereas most others are allocentric: English-speakers describe objects’ location in relation to themselves or other people, and not to other objects (for example, ‘the bike is five metres to my left’ rather than ‘the bike is next to the fire hydrant’).’

I had never thought of my language like that, I must admit, but if the contention is valid, the ramifications are interesting and it affects the kinds of studies that are carried out. ‘Our cultural bias means that not only do we ignore concepts that might be important in other countries – such as face, caste or honour – but that you often end up testing for an English-language concept (‘shame’, for example) which might have no direct equivalent in another society, or have different connotations.’

Henrich argued that ‘what we think of as science is all too often ‘WEIRD’ science… Between 2003 and 2007, 96 per cent of experimental volunteers in the leading psychology journals were WEIRD; 68 per cent of papers relied exclusively on US subjects; and in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67 per cent of total subjects were US psychology students. ‘Many fields have a model organism that they study… A lot of medicine is done with mice, a lot of genetics is done with fruit flies. And in psychology, the model organism is the American undergraduate.’ Perhaps things have changed since those statistics were collated, and yet, I’m sure fiscal constraints still limit both the amount of diversity attainable and the ability to replicate and validate whatever conclusions were obtained.

But, apart from paring off a few charming idiosyncrasies, and allowing -forcing?- strangers to adapt to how we in the WEIRD west view the world, is there any harm done? It’s still valuable information, right?

All information is no doubt valuable, but is it useful? Cooperrider summarizes his concern at the end: ‘For much of human history, one of our most distinctive traits as a species has been our sheer diversity.’ So, is that something we can afford to lose?

Not that I have any realistic say in the matter, but now that I understand the trend, I have to ask myself if I really want to live in a vanilla ice-cream world -one with no lumps in it. No mysterious colours, no fireside tales of how each of us came to be.

Are we not such stuff as dreams are made on?