Thursday, March 29, 2007


I’m bouncing off of horror and mayhem in the media, esp. the news, and Venter’s new DNA quest which discovered an ocean of alphabet soup. The frame I’m working with is the idea that existence is a flow, a process, and even what seem to be stable, concrete entities are not at all. Since I’m watching epics about India through my Netflix connection, I’m thinking about Alec Guinness impersonating a droll and resigned Hindoo holy man. And then there are those EMT blogs with their riveting accounts of saving -- or not -- lives by knowing how flesh operates to stay alive.

I don’t think I’d have much trouble convincing anyone that a person is flesh, so vulnerable to trauma and aging that it cannot be maintained much beyond a hundred years. If we know this, why are we so horrified by abuses of flesh -- is it the pain? Why do we so love to read things like those EMT blogs? And if we really believe in “souls” -- our own identity without flesh -- why are we so unresigned to death which only removed our flesh?

It takes so little to kill someone. I remember a story about a murderer who killed people by inserting a steel hatpin into the crack where the top vertabra attaches to the skull. It was a pre-MRI tale and took the coroner a while to figure out. (I’m always impressed that the coroner on shows like “Wire in the Blood” can come to such definite conclusions. And yet it is so difficult to confirm something obvious like what killed Anna Nicole Smith. Which is not to say that fixing the blame is any easier.)

I’m thinking about the article in the Smithsonian about the sculptor who produced masks to preserve the semblance of men mutilated in war. If it were only flesh, why does a change in shape change our attitude towards the people whom we love? And why do we have such different attitudes towards such different configurations of flesh? (Whiskey Prajer has posted a joke mudflap with a paunchy, gimme-cap-wearing old guy where the busty sweet young female usually is. Actually I think that guy is kinda cute...)

Anyway, what’s the difference between a cup of ocean brine and a human being except organization, community, a balance between differentiation and connection. Why should we want to separate and preserve one human or one species out of all this unrelenting torrent of beings? The difference is just a stem cell, right? The difference between the cysts that doctors sometimes cut out of people (a cyst is an encapsulated blob of cells that might have hair and teeth or other person-bits in it that have somehow lost the game-plan and didn’t know how to make a whole person) and a person or creature with the uniquely shaped and configured cells of muscle, bone, brain and gut -- all nicely arranged the way they’re supposed to be, so that they function.

I read the blog called almost daily though I have to struggle to understand it. I see there that the scientists have managed to implant the single gene that allows mammals to see the color red into a mouse, which normally doesn’t have that gene. Sure enough, tests showed that the mouse recognized red. So will we find a gene for infrared and implant it into humans who will then be able to see in the dark? Can ultraviolet be far behind? Will this stand the art world on its ear? What will it “feel” like to see these extra-spectrum colors? What does it feel like now to people who are color-blind, tone-deaf? Are they lesser? Can we implant some colors and sounds for them? The GNXP guys (85 to 90% male -- quite a few from India) are always searching for “G” which is what they call intelligence instead of the battered old concept of IQ. They are not very secretly hoping there is a gene for G and they have it, even though the evidence so far is that it takes a lot of genes working together in a favorable environment (nutritionally at least) to create a high G. (Better ocean, better fish.)

I read about memory and the theories about how those sensations are encoded in the brain. (Muscle memory as well?) Will there come a day when they can stick a head in one of those things that looks like a clothesdryer and say, “Look, here is the smell of the bakery in the little hamlet of Cannon Beach, Oregon, in September, 1977. This part here is fresh Haystack Bread, and this code is for iodine and kelp.” Heck, I don’t need code. I can summon it up any time I want. But how does it work?

I don’t believe in souls. I believe in identity. But I believe that it is a process, a trajectory as much as its container, my body, is. A dance on a dancing stage. So how do I know who I am? How do others recognize me? Pheromones? Do pheromones remain unchanged while we grow fatter and thinner, older (always older -- never younger.)

If we were both in Cannon Beach in September, 1977, would we have the same memory molecules in our different brains? Or does Haystack Bread smell different to you? How do we know that when a mouse sees red, it sees the same color we do? How do we know we’re different people but in the same world at the same time? And how did we get so attached to each other? OR... so angry with each other.

Alec Guinness’s Hindoo character says that everything is pre-ordained and happens as it was meant to all along, no matter what we do. So if I try to make this world one way and you try to make it another, it doesn’t really matter because it will be the way it will be, as it was already ordained all along. (He says God but I don’t believe in God.) So is there any use in trying to save each other? If you were meant to do that, you will. Otherwise, you won’t, and no blame attached. I don’t think I like this. Let’s go back.

Molecular coding, DNA, controls the way your egg/sperm combo unfolds in the world, within the limits of that world. One of the codes, which we never see, determines how much energy any entity will have to spend in the world and evolution has taught each species in its particular world how to spend its energy. We’re told that each species has a quota to spend. So David Quammen has explained to us why salmon die after they spawn: it’s because they’ve spent their whole lives growing in the challenging world of that seething ocean and then struggling up a tumbling mountain stream to get to the very place they hatched, guiding themselves always by pheromones in the water. No more energy is left after that. Does this mean that if I write books with all my strength and ability, I will die after the last one? Well, obviously, or it wouldn’t be the last one, would it? Have I spent my energy on too much trivia when I ought to have saved it for now? Or am I holding back?

If I come to someone who is dying, should I do my best to be like an EMT and try to save them? But what if the whole world is dying? Of course it is. All along the edges where the global warming is changing the ecology, the trees are dying, the bees are dying. Because we’ve made this planet into one big ecology where the whole meshing of DNA bits must be recalculated and reintegrated, because the barriers of sea and mountain that created small protected islands are all breached, the flowers are blooming without bees and the cranes are flying without frogs. But we are so ATTACHED! How can we keep from grieving?

And how can we be sure we won’t be extinguished pretty soon ourselves, souls or no souls -- God or no God. Alec’s Hindoo would say, “Doesn’t matter. If it’s meant to be, it will happen.” After all, the planet will go on without us. Without us messing everything up, the DNA can go back to unfolding without any Petri dishes. Then will there be a place somewhere on the planet that “remembers” Cannon Beach in September? Has to be -- that moment has unfolded on and on and on and on...

Some scientists are saying that every possible unfolding is happening in parallel. Somewhere there is a galaxy with no earth, in another there is an earth that evolved humans who protected their planet. And another that performed a “save” at the last moment. We can only hope we’re on the right unfolding string.

I consider these religious questions and they do have a moral content. To me, a lot of the pattern is intensity. But does that mean I’ll be used up sooner or persist longer? Alec? “It is already decided.” I know two things for sure: I’m not alone and I won’t be “lost,” just transformed.

The Bible has two big paradigms in it. The Old Testament one says all the world is tribes, oases and kings/patriarchs. The New Testament one is the family: mother, father and child. The line between the two is blurred. But this new scientific worldview based on alphabet soup, all astir and recombinant, is a major break. It comforts me, but will it take hold on a planet? Alec?


maxine said...

Amazing post, Mary. I can't comment on much of it, but just to say that there are very few "single trait" genes. Huntingdon's is one. But the relationship between a "gene" and its phenotype is still, in the main, obscure. We know via the various genome projects (not just C Venter's) that there are not that many genes in human's, for example. So there is a heck of a lot of post-translational processing that goes on. I don't think you could say that one gene codes for red vision, for example, there is probably a lot of redundancy.

It is a bit like in the 1960s, when people began to work out the amino=acid sequences of proteins, and assumed that this would allow them to predict the shape of the folded, three-dimensional protein. Nope. They still can't do that.

Biology is fearsomely complicated and still a mystery in a vast number of ways.

dr. hypercube said...

I just read this post through twice - I'm going to think a bit and read it a couple more times later. Thank you.