The idea that each human is a discrete being; perhaps with an embodied soul, separate from the surrounding environment, unique in the universe and relatively static over time; is an old idea, but one that has long been proven to be not only false but entirely divorced from reality. Philosophers have disputed this idea for at least 2,000 years and modern science has demonstrated that we are not separate from the world at all, but part of a complex network of interdependent life. Indeed, a human being is made up of trillions of human cells, but also about 10 times as many non-human cells, mostly bacteria. Some of the these bacteria benefit us, some merely do us no harm, and of course some are harmful to us. But the whole of these tiny beings, their lives and deaths and intermingling with our human cells, are what makes human life possible.
So the proper way to think of ourselves is not as a discrete being that interacts with the external world, but as a living ecosystem, a big bus (or ark) full of diverse life forms in constant interaction, with our brain (and other parts of the nervous system) as the driver or pilot.
The philosophies and religions of the East have mostly avoided deluding themselves with the idea of man as a being separate from the world. This idea is primarily a Western creation, probably created alongside and necessary for the anthropocentric religions of the Middle East, which assert a God who depends on nothing and require a man who depends only on God to maintain humanity’s comforting central place in the universe. The reality of interdependent existence; in which each human individual is constantly in flux, changing and being changed by his environment, and only a tiny and non-essential part of a larger cosmos; is much more complex and much less comforting to the simple-minded than the simplistic idea of man as a unitary being beholden only to God and sharing in His permanence, as asserted by Western monotheism.
I will be exploring this idea further when time permits, but it’s such a grand idea that I wanted to put it up even in its rough state so others can benefit from thinking on it. A great candidate for my next discussion on this topic is the idea that different components of human cells, such as the mitochondria, originated as discrete organisms that first developed in mutualistic relationships and eventually merged into the form we see them today.
Slashdot – Are Human Beings Organisms Or Living Ecosystems? – This brief article has several excellent links providing more information on this idea.
TED – Bonnis Bassler on how bacteria “talk” – Amazing talk in which a distinguished molecular biologist talks about how bacteria communicate with other bacteria (both inter-species and intra-species) to enable situation-dependent communal behavior and also covers new research on jamming these bacterial communications as a means of preventing virulent bacteria from harming us.