The word “homeostasis” is one of those Latinate multi-syllabics that suggest things it should not. I’ve been looking for synonyms and right now I like this one: “constancy.” As a quality, it is meant to mean “unchanging,” but in terms of human life, it’s not possible to eliminate all change so maybe the word that works better is “consistency.” Or self-faithfulness.
Life in mammals is not meant to be unvarying, but it must stay within limits or risk becoming damaging to life. Those limits are of various kinds:
Oxygen, calories, blood content, and other physical qualities
Temperature, intact skin, discarding waste, movement
Environmental, freedom from disease, movement, contact
Psychological: autonomic, brain, hormonal
Social: relationship, legal, education, culture
These are limits from side-to-side, often described as the banks of a river. One must stay in the river to survive. There is a geological term: “thalweg” which means the deepest center of a stream-way, but the truth is that it’s not possible to resist forces that push from side to side, except one MUST keep off either bank or die.
The river comparison is also useful in terms of flow. Consider “headwaters” which is the area from which the water gathers in little trickles, gradually becoming bigger and faster. Life sets terms of gathering-up and momentum, but can stop and pool until it is deep.
The creation of a human being begins with a big egg and an onslaught of little sperms. Only one sperm gets through the skin of the egg and successfully winds together with the half-strand helixes of genes organized into chromosomes. They might not do that task well enough to start growing. A simple little clot, they will pass away.
80% of miscarriages occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The reason in about half of the failed pregnancies is chromosomal abnormality, a broken plan. If the mother is over forty years old her eggs are as “experienced” as she is, and success is affected by what has happened. The next reasons might be in the support system: a bad attachment to the wall of the uterus or one in the wrong place, or the egg may have begun to grow in the fallopian tube where there isn’t enough room. To some degree there must be negotiation between the immune systems of the mother and the baby, or the mother’s body will reject the zygote.
The horizon of birth has become blurred by our ability to support a fetus not quite ready for birth. At the time of birth, the baby is meant to be able to self-maintain basic homeostasis of the body, given that it has food, warmth, and cleanliness — basic care. Even then, there might be “crib death” or simply a failure of small parts to develop. Sometimes something major doesn’t unfold, like the cerebrum of the brain, the most recently evolved layer that contains speech and other functions. Such a baby is often lovely, but inert, and cannot live long.
At about 3 years a baby begins to have a “theory of mind” and to see causes. This is roughly equivalent to baby animals beginning to hunt, to explore, and to separate from the parents. By the age of three most children are walking, talking, and have considerable manual dexterity. They are relating to trusted others or showing their independence by shouting “no.”
At about 5 to 7 years the child builds the ability to solve problems. Given an environment fortunate and tolerant enough, a child this age could act like an adult in some ways, taking care of itself even in a household of neglect and abandonment. This will leave many parts of the child undeveloped and will force it to compensate in ultimately damaging ways.
At the moment I have in my household a half-grown kitten that nearly starved to death in the past. He is uncontainable and ruthless when it comes to searching for food or taking it away from other cats. But he is very seductive and coaxing when wanting something from me. Predators play and play hard for long periods of time. Eaters of vegetation mostly do childhood gymnastics without focusing on other creatures, but predators are both preparing for combat and for hunting. This Striped Terror jumps to the tops of things, creeps under and behind things, and loves chasing the smaller kitten, the Dust Bunny. I’ve caught ST standing on the cookstove twice in the last half-hour. Luckily, nothing is cooking.
But the cat does not stop this behavior once it is fed and full. Its sleep is instantly broken if there is any hint of activity that might mean food. The Striped Terror earned his name by being combative, destructive (because of reaching under, knocking over, and getting carried away in play), and inventively resourceful. He does things that are beyond what the other cats might do. My house rewards this, as it is a yard full of fallen branches, a garage of saved boxes and jars, indoor surfaces with paper piles and small objects like paper clips and paint brushes, and un-prompt dishwashing. The two pre-existing ancient cats sleep through everything, but if the Striped Terror bothers them, they are literally sharp in their reaction -- tooth and claw -- which he regrets and remembers.
The Striped Terror came from nowhere but I suspect lived in a house for a while. He wants to drink from the toilet and stubbornly believes there is a door where there is none, which means his mental map is not adjusted to this house. Because of the weather patterns in Valier, all the house doors open to the south side, but ST thinks there’s a door on the north side, so maybe he’s come from somewhere far enough away to have a different climate. Maybe he came as a stowaway.
The Dust Bunny, born in the back shed, was developmentally messed up because of some kind of disease or trauma when he was very tiny. At one point he was just a head and the body of a sparrow and I thought he would die. He was missing for weeks, and then one day appeared with his mother though she wasn’t pleased. So he claimed the Striped Terror, who was from about the same birthing season, but twice his size.
The DB’s mother was a runt, unusually small, and she was very attached to her mother, Patches. I called her Smudge, a little gray shadow in the grass at her mother’s heels. I can’t go near the Dust Bunny, who is even vaguer and fuzzier than his mother, but he is devoted to the Striped Terror, who mothers the little fellow. They sleep on the bed — in fact, on me, with the comforter in between — but if the DB sees my head or hand, he’s gone. Still, DB watches ST very closely and imitates him and ST loves to be petted and cuddled. This pairing up is done by at-risk kids and even adults. If these cats were dogs, they might join a pack.
So now we have the same teleological problem as every living creature. Successful constancy, in terms of a whole life, is usually defined by where it is going. For the sake of the species, the goal has to be making more examples of the creature, but that might be achieved at the sacrifice of some of them. We don’t mind that — if the creatures are rabbits or chickens — but we DO mind when it comes to humans. If we know them. We pretend we don’t and if the pretense is broken, we don’t like that one bit. We don’t even like thinking about what happens to housecats. These are cat boys who will fight the tough local Toms.
There’s no use in doing reparative work for youngsters of any kind if there’s no life for them when they reach adulthood. But changing society in order to find roles is tough when the roles themselves are in such a storm of change. College professors and doctors are finding life tough, too. The cats are missing several one-time niches.
No one wants more pet cats — we’ve all got enough and there is an outcry against them from bird lovers. Wheat farmers still need more feral cats who will keep down rodents as they’ve done since the invention of granaries millennia ago. These days attrition among feral cats around farms is very high because the predators who once ate rabbits or pheasants now can’t find any because of the way wheat is raised, constantly plowed and poisoned. Therefore the predators eat cats. It is a role with a short script. I do not like to think about hawks eating the Striped Terror or the Dust Bunny. But this is exactly what we are doing to feral children, letting them be destroyed by predators. We even begrudge them the drugs that help them endure it.
None of the classic questions of philosophy are beyond a seven-year-old’s understanding. If God exists, why do bad things happen? How do you know there’s still a world on the other side of that closed door? Are we just made of material stuff that will turn into mud when we die? If you could get away with killing and robbing people just for fun, would you? The questions are natural. It’s the answers that are hard.
-- Eric Schwitzhebel
-- Eric Schwitzhebel