By Chic Hollis – Philosophical Musings
It’s about time for Jonathan Swift’s view of Gulliver’s contemporary world to be up-dated and brought into the 21st Century, don’t you think? Modern humans have much different “macro” and “micro” viewpoints of the various inhabitants on this planet. For example: curious scientists have atomic microscopes at their disposal to examine in better detail the universe at the Lilliputian level of existence.
With the help of knowledgeable entomologists we can study in their natural habitat the most successful group of creatures living with us on this planet, insects. In terms of diversity and numbers Arthropoda is the most prolific phylum. More interesting to humans of course is the investigation of the lifestyles of the Primates, especially Homo sapiens. Aided by the Internet and the advancement of photographic gadgets, experts can analyze with much greater certainty the reality of the global human social scene dominated by its larger-than-life personalities.
It may be presumptuous of me to limit our samples of “reality” to three: the social (human), the natural (insect), and the internal – for lack of a better name – (cellular). But brevity is necessary if there is any hope of holding your attention for a couple of paragraphs, or a couple of pages at the most.
So where do we begin the comparison of the three realities? With commonalities shared or distinctiveness not shared? Certain stereotypical judgments cannot be avoided either way you view the three levels. I choose to blend the three realities (ignoring certain discrepancies) and let you respond with your own opinions about what differentiates one from the others. Is that fair? My hypothesis may be upsetting to the majority of my human audience, but hopefully it will generate some deeper thinking.
Most of us glibly presume that the larger animals with identifiable brains do the thinking – what little there is done. Creatures in the lesser orders in the animal kingdom react to external stimuli supposedly by using their “instincts.” Organic cells do all sorts of things too minute to observe, so today scientists suspect that they are driven or managed by the DNA, or some other part of a cell, that informs the other components in the cell how to proceed by using some chemical communication network. Scientific theory assumes that a process that works in the cell of primitive animals similarly works in the cells of more advanced animals.
As an example, specific, essential chemicals that are passed along via an internal circulatory system are selected and incorporated by each cell somehow. These chemicals are derived from the air, the water, and the food an animal ingests or consumes, and are processed somehow somewhere in the cell. Once identified, they are used or converted into energy to enable the animal to perform its routine, daily activities. Some very complicated processes must be coordinated and accomplished by rather simple insects or one cell creatures that don’t have a special physical adaptation that experts would recognize as a “brain.”
Let’s look more deeply into those considerations that all organic material must take into account in order to survive, grow, and hopefully reproduce. Each “unit” at all three levels of reality has a prime objective of self-preservation and a secondary objective of reproducing its “species.” I use the term “species” broadly to include a cell or a group of cells that must individually reproduce themselves so that the organism of which they are an integral part can continue to live, multiply, and maintain the distinguishing characteristics that differentiates the species from other unique life forms.
A modicum of stored or learned intelligence is requisite for each individual to function as a defensive creature as soon as it is self-conscious. This intelligence must be available to the creature or cell in order to become aware of, or expectant about, the environmental conditions it will encounter and the basic techniques at its disposal to prolong its tenuous existence. Each entity must be informed about and cognizant of what it is expected to do next, what nourishment it must seek, and how it is to use its appendages and elemental structures/organs. This may not be considered “thinking” as we humans do consciously and unconsciously. It may be instinctive, but the activity of “consideration” and “analysis” has to be done somewhere and somehow in order to evaluate the external conditions and take appropriate action to survive.
Generally, our human society relies on the parents to care for the helpless infant and to instruct the baby/child as it grows into maturity. Because our original ancestors have evolved from a jungle/plains hunter and gatherer society to a predominantly sophisticated, urban one, our human responses to external stimuli are much different today than what our parents’ responses were a generation ago.
Cultural changes have dictated a different set of reactions to challenges that humans have always faced: What should we do next? What nourishment is healthy? And what should we do with our bodies and talents in order to fit into the space allowed us in our societies? Our societies have evolved to advance our group productivity in order to support the explosive population growth that can only be sustained by implementing technology that addresses more efficient and productive output of the necessary things that satisfy our basic needs.
Unfortunately, the introduction of this technology has been very uneven throughout the world, so that in some places discretionary time and energy exists to have fun and enjoy an Epicurean life style, to investigate how to improve technology further, and to play at manipulating other humans for better or for worse. At the most basic level of human social life, the mandatory original routine is followed: find something to eat, drink, and do to stay alive.
These same activities must be carried out by any insect who may be a member of a colony or not. He and she have no parents to coach them or care for them. They go through a complete or incomplete metamorphosis into adulthood with no schooling, training, or intellectual help of any kind that we know of at the moment. Yet, somehow the instincts available to them somewhere in their six-legged organism enable the insect to endure adversity and complete its life cycle. Somehow each creature responds to the inviolable Laws of Nature, the internal messages of its genes, and the external dangers it faces. These responses determine whether or not the insect will survive and reproduce. It has its own challenges in its unique reality, and it automatically reacts to those in an effort to extend its existence and provide a future for its offspring.
The life span of a cell is only recently being understood. It is believed that a cell divides itself or replaces itself periodically and continually. Internally, it has all kinds of parameters to limit its activity. Without an identifiable consciousness, it nevertheless manages to make evaluations as if it were conscious of its environment and deficiencies. Using only these simple evaluations, it makes subsequent and important life prolonging decisions. The cell knows what chemicals it needs, how to process them, how to manufacture energy (or burn the “fat” as energy), and how to maintain its identity as a specific kind of cell. Like the insect, it seems to have had no education or training. It seems to be aware of all the components that comprise its structure or identity, and it knows when to employ each and how.
Pretty sophisticated for something without a brain, no? But does it have a thinking apparatus of some kind or something that remembers and associates, evaluates new data, makes a timely decision, and implements that? The results of a cell’s activity would indicate that some kind of analytical data processing is going on somewhere and has a communication system that converts its various conclusions into action within the cell.
The process is still too complicated for scientists to understand completely, but my overall summary of it is not too farfetched in describing the reality that a cell must deal with all the time. You may not accept my sketchy picture of this reality and what generally goes on inside a cell, but you have to recognize the work that is being done by the “commander” of the cell. This decision-maker or thinking apparatus must reside somewhere inside of a cell. Regardless of where the “controller” of the cell’s components actually resides, we must acknowledge that it faces the cell’s external reality just as we humans do ours, and as insects do theirs.
All three have to respect the natural laws pertaining to the four basic physical forces, the laws of thermodynamics, and all the other minor laws (identified or not by humans) governing the physical world. They have to obey the laws pertaining to the chemical substances that make up the chemical conglomeration of their bodies. They have to defend themselves against the extremes of hot and cold, abundance and dearth of fluids and gases, and all the adversity that abounds to stifle the continuous activity each unit has become accustomed to and calls its “life.”
Am I imputing too much humanity into the efforts of cells and insects for you? Or is what each does to confront its reality so similar and familiar as to seem human? Maybe the lesser of the three can’t paint a picture, react to music, or use language as humans do, but each does seem to communicate somehow when absolutely necessary. Each tries to adapt itself in order to deal with the challenges it faces. And each pursues its continuity and future with a similar dedication and courage.
Do cells and the insects know fear, doubt, and frustration? Do they want happiness, respite from stress, and an eternal future? We sincerely doubt that. But can we be sure? What is there in our human acts that speak for us and demonstrates these unique desires in humans? Could a casual observer know what actually goes on in our minds, if there was no communication with us? We will go on as usual doing what we do – probably confounding any extraterrestrials who can’t communicate with us.
The challenges of reality seem to be conceptually similar for all three “life forms,” and their reactions to it appear familar, also. Suppose that global warming reached such a high level that all three of these life forms could not adapt themselves and consequently perished. Each would make some effort to survive and defend itself from the excessive heat. In the final analysis, the only cells likely to survive would be those which could endure or adapt to the temperature increase. This example shows you that there is a greater wealth of intelligence available in our cosmos than we humans can tap into at present. But it is not shared with everyone. Some creatures are already using that intelligence. How they found it and use it defies our best scientific theories.
Reality leaves each of the three life forms a simple message. It is: “Do the best you can with what you have been given. That’s all that is expected of you.”
Now it’s your turn to refute everything I wrote. Please be merciful, however, to the innocent, lower creatures and the microscopic cells that have no spokesperson to explain to us how their reality appears to them and how they must deal with it. Sooner or later, though, “life” ends for the three of us.
During the course of an experience called “life,” it appears that reality is prejudicial, sometimes helping us and sometimes hindering us. So, suck it up, folks. It’s not going to get any better or easier. Ask the one-cell critters and the insects. They have been around this planet a lot longer than humans have, and most likely they will be here when Homo sapiens are gone.