We Are All Wholes, We Are All PartsCory Panshin on December 27, 2010
As each vision matures, it takes on a broader philosophical dimension that enables it to challenge the underlying assumptions of earlier visions. The holism vision is currently undergoing just such a development, as demonstrated by the recent flurry of doubts being raised about the concept of the autonomous individual.
For the past several centuries, we in the West have been living in an intellectual climate where the isolated individual was perceived as the fundamental unit of existence on every level of reality. It began with the image of atoms zooming through the void that was the basis of the science vision. It continued with the self-sufficient citizen of the democracy vision, equal to but independent of every other self-sufficient citizen. And it climaxed with the chaos vision, in which individual consciousness becomes the sole determination of value and meaning.
But now we have reached a turning-point where the concept of absolute individuality and freedom that was formerly a path to liberation from hidebound tradition has become toxic and destructive. We are in desperate need of an alternative — and holism, with its central message that the whole is always more than the sum of its parts, is ready to provide it.
That message was already present when the holism vision was coming together in the 1920’s and 30’s, but mainly as a grounds for arguing against scientific reductionism. The notion that we personally might also be part of something larger began to take hold only in the psychedelic 1960’s, when a musician like John Lennon might sing “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”
But what was still no more than an acid-fueled insight forty years ago has since become solid science — and that science in turn is actively generating new philosophical insights.
In particular, the concept of what it means for an organism to be more than the sum of its parts is undergoing radical revision. In the late 20th century, living things were perceived as something like a little man made out of Lego bricks. If you increased the number and different types of bricks beyond a certain level, and added lots of elaborate cross-connections, you might find your construct revealing unanticipated properties — possibly even consciousness itself.
But that way of looking at things is fading now. Instead of seeing ourselves as complicated assemblages of inert building-blocks, we’re starting to realize that both our bodies and our minds are more like a worker’s collective, with every cell and every process having its own agenda that needs to be reconciled through subtle internal negotiations.
Beyond that, we’re learning that the very cells of our bodies are not all “us.” There are said to be about 10 trillion cells in the human body — but that is only a fraction of the number of microbes we carry around with us. According to researcher Jeffrey Gordon, “We think that there are 10 times more microbial cells on and in our bodies than there are human cells. That means that we’re 90 percent microbial and 10 percent human. There’s also an estimated 100 times more microbial genes than the genes in our human genome. So we’re really a compendium [and] an amalgamation of human and microbial parts.”
We could not live without these helpful microbes. They are essential to our ability to digest our food and to maintain good health. But they are not merely our obedient servants, since they appear to have their own say in how we live and even in how we evolve. A recent study of fruit flies, for example, found that the bacteria in their gut determined what pheromones they emitted, and that in turn determined which other fruit flies they would mate with.
There’s every reason to believe it’s similar for us humans — and that’s probably a good thing, since microbes are far more adaptable than long-lived and slow-reproducing organisms like ourselves. One of the scientists who led the fruit fly study suggests, “Up to now, it was assumed that the host organism undergoes evolution on its own, while its symbiotic bacteria undergo their own evolution. The mechanism that we discovered enables evolution to occur more rapidly in response to environmental changes. Since a generation is shorter for bacteria than for multicellular organisms, they genetically adjust more quickly to changes in the holobiont.”
That term “holobiont” is a recent usage but it appears to be crucial to the new way of looking at things. The word was originally coined by a coral researcher to describe “the entire community of living organisms that make up a healthy coral head,” including not only the coral itself but also symbiotic algae, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and other bacteria which help to ward off infection.
Now it seems that we humans can also be described as holobionts. And with that insight, we are well on our way to perceiving ourselves not as isolated units — or even assemblages of isolated units — but as complex ecosystems that are also intimately linked to the larger ecosystems beyond.
And this is not true only on the microbial level. An article which appeared in New Scientist last winter (but is now behind a paywall) reported that fully a third of the human genome is “made up of mysterious virus-like entities called retrotransposons, pieces of selfish DNA that appear to serve no function other than to make copies of themselves.”
The term “selfish” is something of a tease, however, since the author goes on to explain that these retrotransposons are the remnants of ancient viral infections which took up permanent residence in our genomes and ultimately proved to be either harmless or actively beneficial. Some viral genes, for example, are essential to the proper development of the placenta and the embryo, while others appear to play an important role in brain function.
“The answer to our paradox is now clear: the human genome has evolved as a holobiontic union of vertebrate and virus,” author Frank Ryan concludes. “It is also probable that this ‘virolution’ is continuing today. HIV belongs to a group of retroviruses called the lentiviruses. Until recently virologists thought that lentiviruses did not endogenise, but now we know that they have entered the germ lines of rabbits and the grey mouse lemur. That suggests that HIV-1 might have the potential to enter the human germ line, perhaps taking our evolution in new and unexpected directions. It’s a plague to us – but it could be vital to the biology our descendants.”
There’s that term “holobiont” again — along with a provocative suggestion that even HIV might in time become a respectable member of the community and offer us as yet undreamed-of evolutionary possibilities.
About a year ago, I commented on another New Scientist article which described the concept of horizontal gene transfer — the evolutionary mechanism whereby “organisms acquire genetic material ‘horizontally’ from other organisms around them, rather than vertically from their parents or ancestors.”
“This mechanism is already known to play a huge role in the evolution of microbial genomes,” the article continued, “but its consequences have hardly been explored.” And the writer went on to say:
In the past few years, a host of genome studies have demonstrated that DNA flows readily between the chromosomes of microbes and the external world. Typically around 10 per cent of the genes in many bacterial genomes seem to have been acquired from other organisms in this way, though the proportion can be several times that. So an individual microbe may have access to the genes found in the entire microbial population around it, including those of other microbe species. “It’s natural to wonder if the very concept of an organism in isolation is still valid at this level,” says Goldenfeld. …
In the Darwinian model, evolutionary change occurs because individuals with genes associated with successful traits are more likely to pass these on to the next generation. In horizontal gene transfer, by contrast, change is not a function of the individual or of changes from generation to generation, but of all the microbes able to share genetic material. Evolution takes place within a complex, dynamic system of many interacting parts, say Woese and Goldenfeld, and understanding it demands a detailed exploration of the self-organising potential of such a system.
The researchers cited in that article, Woese and Goldenfeld, suggest that horizontal gene transfer may have been the dominant evolutionary mechanism in the early stages of life on earth, before giving way to Darwinian survival of the fittest in multicellular organisms. But in light of all the research cited above, it seems that horizontal gene transfer must also play a continuing role in creatures like ourselves — both directly through viral infections and indirectly through our microbial partners.
In the old 20th century paradigm which was based on the primacy of the isolated individual, evolution was believed to take place through random “mutations” that rendered some individuals more or less “fit” than others. But in the new 21st century model, evolution appears instead to be a continuous process of self-organization within the single meta-organism that comprises all life on earth.
And that is only the starting point, because these philosophical conclusions are going to prove vital to multiculturalism, as well. Over the next few years, human societies will come to be seen as the equivalent of holobionts, with their various ethnic and cultural minorities playing an essential role, particularly when it comes to introducing novel “genetic” material to prompt further social evolution.
And as those ideas fall into place, we will ultimately come to perceive even our own minds as holobionts — with implications that presently cannot even be imagined.
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