Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Homeostasis is an ugly world, with overtones from the Latin roots that don’t work in English -- “homo” doesn’t refer to homogenized milk anymore. But I haven’t settled on a good synonym yet. What the long word really means is the limits of the stream of life for an entity. Too much blood sugar/not enough blood sugar, too much heat/not enough heat, too much oxygen/not enough oxygen -- those are physiological limits that if the body fails to regulate automatically, some compensation must intervene. Too much belligerence/not enough belligerence, too much curiosity/ not enough curiosity, are personality limits. We don’t know much about how to intervene, but ideas, images and stories seem to help.
There is a life-limiting set of parameters inside the skin: the duties of the organs, the circulation, the heart/lungs pump and so on which normally function subconsciously; and another outside the skin: temperature, air exchange, and so on. Outside things must stay out (microbes, knives, poisons) and inside things must stay in (liver, blood, guts). But some outside things (air, food, water) must come in and some inside things (feces, urine, sweat) must go out. This constant exchange between inside and outside is the process that IS a person. This exchange across a “skin” is also what creates a living cell. If it is done according to a gene code, the cell is eukaryotic. (Remember “eu” means good.)
The human brain is the organ that must take in sensory information and put out behavior based on what it predicts is wise for the life of this person. If the brain gets it right, things go well, but miscalculations (ignorance, addiction, excessive emotion, fanaticism, violence, brain disfunction) can cause death. Bad “life maps” kill, not just oneself but others.
Just as there are “shores” within which individuals must swim to sustain life, there are group limits that will destroy a whole species or perhaps just a sub-group (denomination, nation, or tribe) that will be eliminated by excess or shortage. Many of these dynamics are social: group versus group. We share identities, ideologies and resources in a political “brain” that might or might not be codified in a document that might or might not be historical, might or might not be applied evenly. Some of these groups are defined by place and its borders. Others are gathered by affinities, individuals magnetized to each other by shared issues and identities.
Between individual and group is a field of interaction, both conformity and dissent. It is regulated by emotions like guilt or shame, empathy or hatred, control or neglect. Negotiating this field -- which can be a battlefield or a safety net -- is the ground of story as recorded in art, religion, mythology, and testimony.
Through most of history the biggest category of homeostasis, life-limits, was the planet itself. It acted upon us -- still does -- as volcano, earthquake, drought, flood, avalanche, hurricane which we called “acts of God” because they exceeded our ability to survive them or to devise compensatory shelters. We were excited to find we could build dams and aqueducts and exalted to discover we could even travel to outer limits of gravitation, like the moon. So far as we know the only threats to the existence of a physical planet are solar explosion or giant asteroid impact. But then we found out, by going far enough from the planet to see it as a whole, our cumulative impact on what was already changing, though slowly, that there are limits on what on this planet will sustain -- life as we know it. Now we know that the planet must stay within specific limits of the elements of the atmosphere and the ph level of the oceans, in order to maintain the “sweet spot” of life. And we can see that we are at the edges of that spot.
In our realization that a few other planets might have this narrow set of requirements for human life, we have taken a new look at our own human circumstances, but it is not enough for a planet to host humans. We are deeply interwoven with every other form of life on this planet and whatever they might need in order to survive. It’s not enough to “terraform” a planet by creating atmosphere and oceans: they must be populated with beetles and jellyfish, microbes and fungus, and the host of plants that reverse our respiration into their respiration and so we can exchange it back again. It is all dynamic, a process, and it is all exquisitely connected, as much socially as physically.
The cost of connection is terrifying. The real cure for HIV is for every creature on the planet who can catch it to have died from it. No host, no disease. (There are some people who are immune, the same as there are some who don’t catch flu. The good news is that we’re learning to implant immunity -- for those who can afford it.) It is not a matter of virtue, but of adaptability. Those who believe they are immune as individuals because of their own behavior or because of stigmatizing or criminalizing those with the virus or by simply not funding what the afflicted need to stay alive, are grossly underestimating their interwovenness with the rest of planet. Africa’s “failed states” and America’s internal Third World ghettoes affect everyone on the planet. The cost of a population of children raised with no cultural endowment because of missing parents is war -- the force that burdens our National Debt.
Missing life-maps mean returning to the Stone Age without any bombs being necessary. The human genome can be completely stunted and broken by the failure to transmit culture, which is a river as deep and wide as any on the planet. But that’s not all: humans do what they must to survive and soon evolve strategies that prey on the rest of us: Somali pirates, South American drug lords, American corrupt CEO’s with offshore banks. The result is not just sub-populations. Greed and exploitation have pitted and contaminated the continents with wastelands and the oceans with dead water zones where life cannot survive. We are now verging on the poisoning of the atmosphere, the changing of the ocean current beltways that sustain a climate that allows crops, and the elimination of small key creatures like little brown bats.
We know all this. We are aware that the polar bears are drowning and starving for lack of ice floes. We are even vaguely aware that we should change our behavior. Some despair, some freeze, some build walls, some try to run away. Some read, write, and compose images to share on this miraculous communication network growing around the planet. Unless political, economic, or electromagnetic forces intervene, this image-laden internet may be the evolved phenomenon that saves human beings by giving them the sensory input, the poetry, that will change their behavior to predict better outcomes.
No one expected this communication network. To my parents a telephone was miraculous. They stood on tiptoe and shouted into a wooden box, operated with a crank. I don’t have a smart phone or even cable TV, but on my desk computer I watch movies in which people talk to each other with what looks like a slim pack of cards. That’s not the part that might save life as we don’t know it yet: what counts is what we have to say that will describe the future with a map that works. Not just Google Earth vs. Amazon maps, or any GPS system, but a concept map in the brain. An epiphany. One by one by one by millions and millions. As many as stars. It might not save individuals, but it will save the planet.