[excerpt from “Neural We: Single Neurons, Multiple Personalities, and Redefining the Species” (Somov, 2012)]
Metazoan Paradox: Each “I” is a “We” and Each “We” is an “I”
[Chapter 1-b of “Neural We”]
As a reluctant writer, I like beating around the idiomatic bush. Call it creative procrastination or priming of the linguistic pump. I know I do it too much. I love to take semantically scenic detours on the way to my conceptual point. I love to dig up the etymological root-work of words and to feel the filigreed texture of connotations with fingertips on the keyboard. For me, language is a tongue that kisses itself. A love affair, no less. So I never grow tired of the question:
How, just how is it possible that this lowly neural mush inside my skull can have so much fun frolicking under the sun-rays of Abstraction?
But as a bookworm and a closeted “rascal sage,” I realize that this time I have to drill my way into a very tight spot. My task is to pry open the clam of the human mind. You see, we – the ones inside these cranial caves that we call our skulls – we have been hiding for way too long. Hiding from ourselves… And hiding from our selves… And hiding from a curious existential paradox which is that each of us is a “we.”
The Predicament and Paradox of the Metazoan Life
We are metazoans – that is, we are multi-cellular organisms. Meta-life. What this means is that we are composites – cellular composites. Just as Buddhists have been telling us all along.
Each of us is made up of trillions of constituent cells. All these cells are anatomically stand-alone microscopic life-forms. You can biopsy (extract) any one of these cells. You can exile any cell to a Petri-dish Alcatraz in a lab, and as long as you feed it some kind of metabolic MRE, it’ll live happily ever after, outside of its ancestral abode, without ever looking back.
This is exactly what happened with HeLa cells that used to belong to the multi-cellular organism named “Henrietta Lacks” – an African-American female patient who died from cervical cancer in 1951. Her biopsied cells were cultured in a lab. And they continue to propagate to this day, traveling the world in a kind of post-mortem research-odyssey of their own, independent of their long-diseased host-organism. They have gone to places that Ms. Lacks herself had never gone to in her own life. For all intents and purposes, the parts proved to be immortal despite the finality of the Organismic Whole.
This is the predicament and the paradox of metazoan life: parts kill us yet parts live on. We see it in the sentimentality of heart transplants: the organ donor is long dead but his or her heart is still beating.
How’s this possible? It’s possible because parts aren’t parts. Parts are life-forms. Unicellular collectives inside a larger metazoan, multi-cellular meta-organism. You see, organs aren’t just organs. Organs are organizations of living cells, living beings. That’s why they can kill and outlive the host.
The cancer that killed Henrietta Lacks is still alive because cancer cells aren’t just cells but living beings, as all cells are. HeLa cells (as they are known) live on happily ever after. They have been used in thousands of research projects and drug trials. And that’s the paradox of it and the predicament of metazoan life: the very cellular beings that killed Henrietta Lacks likely saved other people’s lives.
So, maybe, just maybe, if we stop demonizing and objectifying cancer cells, perhaps our treatment outcomes will change too. Who knows?
To understand our multi-cellular, metazoan nature is to restore faith in the motivational innocence of any given cell-being. Life, in final analysis, whether it is macro- or microscopic, just wants to live. There is no sin in this ancient Darwinian desire.
Pluralities Within Pluralities
We are pluralities – cellular collectives. Each of us is a multi-cellular microcosm, a coalition of multiple Cellular Tribes. Possibly a cellular democracy, but more likely a cellular oligarchy with neurons as metazoan executives.
We are not made up of inanimate parts but of collaborating life-forms, each of which has its own structural integrity and its own existential agenda. Your muscles are not just inanimate pulleys or gears, but living cells. Your bones are not some kind of rebar of collagen and calcium but living cells. Indeed, each cell is a life-form, a unicellular life-form. Each cell-being exists as an independent entity, with its own appetites and needs and experience.
Not sure about this last bit – about this notion that each cell has its own experience? Well, who is this who is being unsure inside of your skull – which cell?
But what’s really fascinating is that each cell is also a composite of sorts. Each cell is also a mini-metazoan, a plurality of yet smaller composite living part-beings that we call organelles.
Endosymbiotic Matreshkas and Organismic Holarchies
You’ve probably seen these Russian wooden dolls, with smaller dolls inside of them, and yet even smaller dolls inside of those, right? Well, you are kind of like that too. As a metazoan, i.e. a multi-cellular organism, you are a composite of unicellular life-forms, i.e. cells. The curious thing is that these constituent cells that you’re made of were (and kind of are) metazoan collectives. Indeed, according to the theory of endosymbiogenesis, the organelles inside of our cells – such as mitochondria – were also stand-alone, independent organisms, which is why to this day such organelles as mitochondria carry their own DNA. So, what we considered to be intra-cellular organelles at some point were free-standing organisms.
The theory goes, that back in the evolutionary day when the dinosaurs-du-jour could be only seen through a microscope, a bigger predatory organism tried to swallow a smaller organism and ran into a problem of indigestion. It could not quite digest what it had swallowed. But it – somehow – realized that the undigested guest could be put to some kind of use. And voila! – symbiosis was born.
Try to imagine this: say, like the Cat-in-the-Hat, you reduced yourself in size with some kind of shrinkamadoodle. You look around for a snack and decide to take a chance on a tiny creature with a whip-like tail that’s darting here and there with maniacal persistence. As you engulf the creature, its hair-like tail pierces through your membranous skin and comes poking out like a whisker. Since you have engulfed, perhaps, a mouthful of these creatures, not all have yet been digested inside the vacuoles of your mini-stomachs. Or perhaps, you are discovering that these creatures are only partly digestible. Bottom-line is that you have one or more of these whip-like whisker-oars sticking out of you and you are suddenly on the receiving end of turbo-charged locomotion.
Fast-forward through the evolutionary trial-and-error part of this digestive mishap, and, lo and behold, you, the Cat-in-the-Hat, now come pre-equipped with a generous compliment of cells that keep you in touch with the environment (whiskers) and insulated from the environment (hairs). Yes, you’ve lost your whip-like oars, the indigested life-forms had, over time, been evolutionarily repurposed as the architecture of the macro-organism called for ever new adaptations.
Each of us is a colossal endosymbiotic matreshaka – a metazoan super-collective of trillions of cells which themselves are full of intra-cellular remnants and the genetic ruins of past evolutionary multi-cellular alliances on a smaller scale.
As a wise woman once said, “The world sits on a big turtle, which sits on yet another turtle,” – and, when asked about what that turtle sits on, she explained, “It’s turtles all the way down!” The seeming paradox of cosmic oneness is that it is infinitely divisible.
Organisms, Organs, Organelles
The word “organ” comes to us from the Greek language via Latin. “Organon” means “tool, instrument.” With this root-level meaning in mind, what is an organism, what is an organ, and what is an organelle? From the biological perspective, an organism is a multi-cellular/metazoan entity – such as you, the so-called “human” in your totality. And you consist of these so-called “organs” – such as a brain or a liver. And these so-called “organs” are made up of cells – such as neurons (in the brain). And these cells are made up of organelles – such as mitochondria, ribosomes, etc.
From a structural perspective, what we have is an endosymbiotic matreshka in which a macro-system uses a sub-system as a tool, with the sub-system itself being comprised of other sub-systems. Put differently, a metazoan – such as you – is a hierarchy of utility in which living tools rely on ever smaller living tools to get the work of living done. And we ourselves are also tools in the hands of an even larger organism, which is society. By the way, the Greek word “organon” derives from the Proto-Indo-European root-term “werg” which also gives us the word “work.” Life is work, and somebody’s has to do it.
So, then what is the distinction between these three words – organism, organ, organelle? To me these words mean the same thing but at different levels of abstraction.
To such an organelle as a mitochondrion, the cell-at-large that it inhabits is the meta-organism, the cosmos, all there is. Any given mitochondrion co-exists alongside other mitochondria, as well as other organelles, inside its own living cave. But this cave, of course, is not made of limestone. It’s not cut into the side of a cliff. It’s a living, dynamic, portable, moving cave with membranes for cell walls.
To clarify, from a certain level of abstraction, a cell too is a metazoan organism. And the same can possibly be said, in turn, about any given organelle.
Intercellular and Intracellular Tribes
Just like there are many different types of organelles living inside a living cell, there are many different kinds of living cells living inside a living organism. No, this is not just a case of bad writing, I hope (although I am, of course, not immune to that). I am not trying to confuse you with this “living such-and-such inside a living such-and-such.” I am just still trying to hammer the point that each of us is a living holarchy – a whole made up of micro-parts that/who themselves are living wholes on a smaller scale.
The time has arrived – in the context of this writing and possibly in terms of our development as a civilization – to start looking at various cell-types or cellular tribes. Indeed, whether we talk of “human”s or fish, both of these types of metazoan meta-life-forms contain various cellular tribes within themselves. Namely, muscle cells, bone cells, adipose cells, epithelial cells and info-processing cells such as neurons.
We can also, of course, speak of intra-cellular tribes – human cells and fish cells both contain some of the same organelles. Fish, just like us, contain mitochondria inside their cells. On some level, a cell is a cell is a cell. An organelle is an organelle is an organelle. An organ is an organ is an organ (for example, “human”s are not the only ones with a brain, fish have them too).
What I mean by this “a thing is a thing is a thing” pronouncement is that there is an undeniable commonality of organization. Oops! The “organon” meme pops up again! My point? It is simply this: each organ is but an organization of cells of one or more cellular tribes collectively performing the work of living.
Take bone for example. As strange as it sounds, a bone is also an organ, a rigid organ, but an organ nevertheless. A bone is a metazoan microcosm of sorts – an unexpected example of multi-cellular inter-tribal cooperation. Bones are an active tissue. They include such diverse cellular tribes as osteoblasts, osteocytes, osteoclasts, nerves, and red blood cells (produced by bone marrow). Therefore, each and every bone is not an “I” but a “We.”
Of Tribes and Diasporas
There are many human tribes on Earth – French, Vietnamese, Maori, English, German, Eskimo, Russian, Jew. And each of these tribes has a geographical home, a place of origin, so to say. But some of these tribes have also established diasporas. For example, Jews can be found throughout the world – Maori less so.
Would it be uncommon to say that a Russian living in Moscow and a Russian living in Washington, DC are the same? I don’t think that many would struggle with this proposition: up to a point, a Russian is a Russian is a Russian regardless of where he/she lives. Of course, a Russian in Moscow is also different from a Russian in Washington, DC. The former speaks Russian full-time and the latter might speak English full-time. And, of course, no two Russians are alike, just like no two Japanese are alike. And yet Russians could and often would relate to each other simply on the basis of ethnicity. And so would any other human tribe on the same basis of ethnic camaraderie.
Same goes for cellular tribes and ethnicities. An osteoclast (a bone immune cell that dissolves/eats bone tissue as part of bone repair and renewal) is more or less the same whether you find it in a “human” bone or a canine bone. Knowing that we could, for example, propose that there exists a Cellular Tribe called Osteoclasts and that this cellular tribe is scattered across a variety of species-specific diasporas – such as Human Osteoclast Diaspora, Canine Osteoclast Diaspora, etc.
The same could be said of heart cells – there exists a Cellular Tribe of Cardiac Cells and this Cellular Tribe is scattered across a variety of species-specific diasporas – such as Human Cardiac Cell Diaspora and Porcine (pig) Cardiac Cell Diaspora. If these Cardiac Cell Diasporas were not principally the same across a variety of animal body-types, we would not have been able to use pig heart valves as part of “human” heart surgeries, would we?
Where am I going with this? To this point right here: What if we allowed ourselves – in fact, what if we dared – to think of neurons in the same fashion? What if we were to start seeing that on a cytological tribal level, a neuron is a neuron is a neuron across all the different species-specific body-forms? What if we were to accept that a neuron in a fish, as a member of a larger Cellular Tribe of Neurons, is not unlike a neuron inside of a “human”? What if we were to think of “human” neurons as nothing other than a Neural Diaspora of the larger Neural Tribe, as a Neural Colony that happens to inhabit a certain moving and movable land-mass called the“human body”?
To understand the metazoan nature of our being is to appreciate that Nature has been innovating with a finite set of living cell-legos. As soon as we are able to see that, we are in a position to relate across the species lines.
Conclusion: The Neural “We”
You’ve heard of the “royal we” – the so-called “majestic plural,” a way of referring to a single person of high office in the plural form. For example, the last Czar of Russia would begin his royal decrees with “We, Nicholas the Second…”
Each of us is a “Neural We” – a multitude of cells, a microcosmic alliance of many, many cellular tribes, a cellular Demos, a cellular People. You, I, and any he or she – each and every one of us – is a “we” unto itself. Each – singularly plural on a cellular level. Each – a legion of cellular plebes (eg support cells) and cellular generals (info-processing cells such as neurons).
When you come into my home – not inside my skull-cave, but into my brick-and-mortar home, you do not come alone. You are a horde of cellular life-forms packed into a Trojan horse of a “human” body-form.
When you come to my mind (i.e. when I think of you) a hundred billion info-processing neural generals, securely ensconced inside the cranial headquarters atop the mountain of my body-fortress, pour over the mental maps of who you collectively are.
Each metazoan “other” you come across in your life-travels is a Neural Population, a mobile Neural City-State, a Sparta of Darwinian warriors waving a hello or a namaste at the mobile Athens that you yourself and your-selves are.
The same goes for every dog you bend down to pet, for every earthworm you plow through with the thick tires of your bicycle, for every non-cephalized neural net of a sea-squirt that undulates on the side of a corral reef as you scuba-dive nearby.
All of us – all of us, metazoans, no matter what body-house we inhabit – mammal, bird, fish, insect, or reptile – all of us are the Neural We Proper – one and the same Neural Tribe –fragmented by evolution into a myriad of body-type, species-specific diasporas.
Each “I” is a “We.” And each “We” an “I.”
Each metazoan life-form is faithful first and foremost to its collective self. That is the metazoan reality of who we all are. A metazoan axiom.
Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno – “one for all, all for one.” This isn’t just a dictum of human camaraderie but a cellular ethic of any metazoan existence.
The miracle of evolution on Earth is that seemingly dumb, almost inanimate in their simplicity of functioning, unicellular life-forms found safety in numbers by building multi-cellular alliances. We have upgraded our quarters from squatting in random nooks and crannies to building cranial fortresses with embrasure eye-sockets and crenellations of teeth. Over time these multi-cellular gangs and cliques evolved into metazoan sky-scrapers – each an anatomically sovereign Metazoan Colossus, like you and me. Each – a vehicle of pleasure and a vehicle of war. Each – an RV and a Chariot, with a Neural Colony (of a species-specific Neural Diaspora of the overall cross-species Neural Tribe) at the steering helm.