A Part in the Whole
Who am I? A celestial being? Nature raw in tooth and claw? A meaningless vehicle for the selfish propagation of replicating DNA? Some weird neurological phenomenon? Or perhaps simply a summation of my collective photographs, web entries or social media links… ultimately an insignificant series of ones and zeros? Placing “I” in the cosmos is as psychologically challenging today as it has ever been. Is it even possible to find a definition that gives you meaning and purpose and yet remain intellectually honest?
In mulling over the concept that I have been calling Earthfulness (see previous piece), seeing humanity as an integral part of the whole Earth, perhaps the question of Who am I can find an answer that is satisfying to both our head and heart. To generate such a world view, however, requires recognising what parts and whole are really all about; can you ever really feel part of a whole? After all, the whole has to be meaningful for us to care about being a part of it.
Scientists love dividing things up into their constituent units; atoms, molecules, branches, species. For many biologists, Watson and Crick’s landmark uncovering of the nature of the genetic code in the 1950s was the ultimate unit-ification of life, defining the fundamental code of earth’s living nature – the blueprint of “I”. (Of course, if you are a physicist you might take issue with this and claim it is instead the atom, the fundamental unit of matter, its origins starting with John Dalton in the early 1800s). To my mind, however, such ideas are several hundred years off of the mark. To me, the most revolutionary concept in understanding what the fundamental unit of life is came from the discovery of the cell, a discovery process that began in the mid-1600s, in the small village of Delft in Holland.
Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek was a Dutch draper with a passion for observing life and drawing it meticulously. He had developed a remarkable skill in making single glass–bead lenses and used these to fashion some of the earliest examples of a single lens microscope. Armed with such a device, he explored the world around him at a level of magnification (>200 times) that no one prior (and few for a very long time) could achieve. What he saw was mind-blowing. The fluid of his own blood viewed under his hand-held device wasn’t a homogenous red liquid but instead a suspension of small globules, disc-like in shape and measuring about 1/100th of a grain of sand by his own measurements (a remarkably accurate measurement of 8.5 microns rather than ±7.5 as we would currently state). Later on, when he looked through his microscope at water from the nearby Berkelse lake he found that its cloudiness, rather than coming from dirt in the water, came from a teaming multitude of life previously unimaginable – alien forms of marvellous diversity that he called animalcules, little animals. And when he took a swab of his own teeth he was taken aback, noting “…there is more animals in the unclean matter on the teeth in one’s mouth than there are men in the whole kingdom!”. As well as laying the foundations for oral hygiene, Leeuwenhoek had accidentally discovered that life existed beyond human perception at the scale of a micron, 1000th of a millimeter.
The 1600s were of course replete with transformations about our position in the cosmos. Galileo’s defence of heliocentrism, based on his astronomical observations of 1609, placed the Sun, not the Earth, at the centre of our galaxy’s existence. However, you can see the Sun. You can gaze at the moon and stars. It is true that knowing we are on a planet orbiting a gaseous sun is profound. However, the first humans looking up in wonderment on a starry night likely shared the feeling that the twinkling entities signalled we were part of something bigger. Revolution of our position in the cosmos, yes. Revolution as to the essence of our nature, no. What Leeuwenhoek saw was different. He planted the seed of an idea that life isn’t whole but is instead composed of units, parts that we had never even perceived before. Robert Hooke is often cited as the father of cell biology (he coined the phrase cell in in 1665 noting that cork sections had small cubicles that reminded him of monastic cells). But Hooke, in the words of Lady Margaret Cavendish, had simply described “only the outside of tiny animals and did not discover their interior, corporal, figurative motions, and the obscure actions of Nature, or the causes which make such or such creatures”. In other words, Hooke had only been able to add detail to that which he already knew was there. Leeuwenhoek was different. He looked and saw that which he could not possibly have known was there. Seeing (and believing) what he saw with his microscope took amazing discipline, self-belief and a spark of genius.
The revolution is best described by Leeuwenhoek’s observations of sperm. In the mid 1600s as the Delft microscopist began making his observations in earnest, the prevailing view was that sperm contained a tiny person which after fusing with the nutritious egg grew into the embryo (a slightly bigger person), a view illustrated by Nicholaas Hartsoeker’s drawing of the homunculus in sperm in 1695. From little things, big things grow. Human form is whole – there are no parts. Leeuwenhoek looked at his own sperm as well as those from myriad other organisms, frogs, birds, even plants. He observed small tadpole like entities moving about with vigorous flexing of their tails, but no microscopic person (horse/frog/bird) was curled up inside. And it would seem that he really (really!) tried to see it. The only conclusion was that we are not simply expanding forms. We come from a single cell – a sperm fusing with an egg.
And that is only half the revelation, it’s what makes up the rest of us that is so discombobulating. From one cell we grow into a whole, made up of cells.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it took a further two hundred years until the idiom Omnis cellula e cellula ("All cells come from cells") was accepted dogma. Everything, from the elephant to the oak, the single celled bacterium to the red blood cell in your veins to the yeast in your beer. Life is cellular. Sometimes multi-cellular. Sometimes single celled. But all life is cellular. We start as one cell. It divides into two, then four, then eight… For a single celled organism, these are the brothers and sister cells that make up the community. For multi-cellular organisms (like us) the cells multiply, diversify in shape, form and function, and as they coordinate these tasks (all running according to the same instruction manual written in a DNA code) the whole of us is formed. It is true that ideas of atomism date back to ancient Greece but to my mind, it was only after it was recognised that we were made up of cells that we could finally understand that being whole (a whole) also meant being composed of inter-connected, communicating, symbiotic parts.
Recognising our cellular nature, it is worth taking a close look at the skin on the back of the hand (that you know so well!). Billions of cells (note: you can only see the grooves in sheets, not single cells with the naked eye) all committed to staying together to hold the “I” inside and protect it from the ravages of the environment. If I run up the stairs, elevating my heart rate, 20–30 trillion red blood cells rush round faster, carrying oxygen to where it is needed to keep me going. It is mind blowing. We are made of trillions of cells, yet the “I” came from just one single cell (brought into being by sperm and egg). It makes little intuitive sense, however, when one of our cells goes wrong within the whole, when it stops communicating, re-writes its own DNA rules of partnership with other cells we know about it, we accept it. We’re rightly terrified of it. That’s what a cancer is – simply one of the cells gone rogue within the whole. But even then, in sickness and in health, the whole stays together, from neurons to immune cells, red cells to skin cells. Like a Lego super-structure awakening to the idea that it is simply made of modest, cube-shaped blocks – you can lose a limb, but your whole remains.
Today there are 7.5 billion of us on the planet. Who am I? What is the whole? Who’s the “I”? Earth? You and me? Our individual cells?
May be that’s what Earthfulness is – seeing ourselves being just as much a whole made of parts as we are a part in the whole – a cell of sorts in a precious, blue body.
I am indebted to Laura Snyder's "Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing" who's book did much to inspire this piece.
© Jake Baum, 2017. www.baumlab.com
First published on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/earthfulness-20-jake-baum