Sometimes a silly question turns out to be a revelation. I was reading about the "mineralome" of the human body and about the mineralization of the Cambrian one-celled creatures when it struck me that I don’t really know what a mineral “is.” It turns out that it depends. The thumbnail is five criteria:
To meet the definition of "mineral" used by most geologists a substance must meet five requirements:
• naturally occurring
• definite chemical composition
• ordered internal structure
Steel is not a mineral because it is an alloy produced by people. "Inorganic" means that the substance is not made by an organism. Wood and pearls are made by organisms and thus are not minerals. "Solid" means that it is not a liquid or a gas at standard temperature and pressure.
"Although liquid water is not a mineral, it is a mineral when it freezes. Ice is a naturally occurring, inorganic solid with a definite chemical composition and an ordered internal structure.” But ice cubes made by humans are no longer mineral.
This is mind-blowing stuff, because we think there are only three categories: animal, vegetable and mineral — but it turns out this idea is “old science” (archaic, says one source!) from “the Linnaean taxonomy in which all things can be assigned to the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms.” “The Linnean Society of London is the world’s oldest active biological society. Founded in 1788, the Society takes its name from the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) whose botanical, zoological and library collections have been in its keeping since 1829.” Nice website.
They are newly relevant since the recent revolutionary and sometimes disturbing information from DNA needs to be reconciled with the Old Science idea of direct experience, palpable and comparable. That is, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, smells like a duck — the New Science says it still might not turn out to be a duck. The Linneans had saved a drawer of duck hides (study skins), just in case.
Mineral “is used in reference to the many inorganic chemicals that organisms need to grow, repair tissue, metabolize and carry out other body processes. Mineral nutrients for the human body include: iron, calcium, copper, sulfur, phosphorus, magnesium and many others.” That list is the “mineralome”, so-called to align it with the terms for the genome, the epigenome, the proteome, et al. But once a mineral is in the body, it can’t by definition be a mineral anymore, can it?
“The word "mineral" is also used inconsistently in geology. In mining, anything obtained from the ground and used by man is considered to be a "mineral commodity" or a "mineral material". These include: crushed stone, which is a manufactured product made from crushed rocks; lime, which is a manufactured product made from limestone or marble (both composed of the mineral calcite; coal which is organic; oil and gas which are organic fluids; rocks such as granite that are mixtures of minerals; and, rocks such as obsidian which do not have a definite composition and ordered internal structure.”
“There are approximately 4000 different minerals and each of those minerals has a unique set of physical properties. These include: color, streak, hardness, luster, diaphaneity, specific gravity, cleavage, fracture, magnetism, solubility and many more. These physical properties are useful for identifying minerals. However, they are much more important in determining the potential industrial uses of the mineral.”
Around here, if we could figure out how to market gumbo, a major feature of our soils, we’d have a new industry. This has been investigated because gumbo is an excellent lubricant that some say is the secret to creating the Egyptian pyramids and the standing stones of Europe. It’s also an ingredient in cat litter and used for plugging exhausted oil wells. In fact, if you put cat litter down your toilet, which seems logical, it will seal off your sewer system. The problem with marketing is transportation of something so heavy and slippery.
So minerals are as inconsistent as the rest of life, dancing in and out of the definition. Some suggest that the mineral composition of clays along waterways were what provided the scaffolding for the first genome to begin organizing. Lately I was absorbed by an article detailing how evolution began in the Cambrian Era. Those little softies in the sea, one-celled eukaryotes, learned how to use minerals to create hard structures: skeletons, shells, teeth and at that point the Hobbsian principal of survival of the fittest in conflicts became relevant. The evolution of bones made it possible to leave the support of the sea and climb onto land, beginning the long evolution to us.
Now I’m going to append a long quote from Eliade. One of the purposes of this blog is to simply put things where I can find them. I will come back to talking about bones on another post later, because it strikes me that minerals, which we think of as solid and unchanging, are in fact transformed and transforming like everything else in the New Science world of quantum physics and “-omes”. This is key to our present thinking paradigm.
This mystical experience (qaumeneq) is related to the contemplation of his own skeleton, a spiritual exercise of great importance in Eskimo shamanism, but which is also found in Central Asia and in Indo-Tibetan Tantrism. The ability to see oneself as a skeleton implies, evidently, the symbolism of death and resurrection; for, as we shall not be slow to see, the “reduction to a skeleton,” constitutes, for the hunting peoples, a symbolico-ritual complex centred in the notion of life as perpetual renewal.
Unfortunately, the information that we have about this spiritual exercise of the Eskimo shamans is rather lacking in precision. Here is what Rasmussen reports of it: “Although no shaman can explain how or why, he can, nevertheless, by the power that his thought receives from the supernatural, divest his body of flesh and blood, so that nothing of it remains but the bones. He then has to name all the parts of his body, mentioning each bone by name; and for this he must not use ordinary human language, but only the special and sacred language of the shamans that he has learned from his instructor. While seeing himself thus, naked and completely delivered from the perishable and ephemeral flesh and blood, he dedicates himself, still in the sacred language, to his great task, through that part of his body which is destined to resist for the longest time, the action of sun, wind and weather”
Such a spiritual exercise implies the “exit from time”, for not only is the shaman, by means of an interior vision, anticipating his physical death, but he is finding again what one might call the non-temporal source of Life, the bone. Indeed, for the hunting peoples the bone symbolizes the ultimate root of animal Life, the matrix from which the flesh is continually renewed. It is starting with the bones that animals and men are re-born; they maintain themselves awhile in carnal existence, and when they die their “life” is reduced to the essence concentrated in the skeleton, whence they will be born anew according to an uninterrupted cycle that constitutes an eternal return.
It is duration alone, time, which breaks and separates, by the intervals of carnal existence, the timeless unity represented by the quintessence of Life concentrated in the bones. By contemplating himself as a skeleton, the shaman does away with time and stands in the presence of the eternal source of Life. So true is this, that in the ascetic technique of mysticisms as highly developed as Tantric Buddhism and Lamaism, meditation upon the image of one’s skeleton, or divers spiritual exercises done in the presence of corpses, skeletons or skulls, still play an important part; such meditations, among others, reveal the evanescence of temporal duration and, consequently, the vanity of all incarnate existence.
But evidently this “going out of time” by means of the contemplation of one’s own skeleton is different evaluated among the shamans of hunting and pastoral peoples, and among the Indo-Tibetan ascetics; for the former, its aim is to re-discover the ultimate source of animal life and thence to participate in Being; while, for the Indo-Tibetan monks, it is to contemplate the eternal cycle of existences ruled by karma; and hence to dispell the Great Illusion (maya) of Cosmic Life, striving to transcend it by placing oneself in the unconditioned, symbolized by Nirvana.