Sunday, February 04, 2018

UMWELT: A Meditation

A term introduced by the Baltic German biologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909, Umwelt refers to an organism’s internal and limited perceptual experience of the external world.

First comes the separation between a creature, an entity controlled by a molecular nucleus, and everything else.  The one-celled creature must know what is edible (approach) and what will eat them (retreat).  “Eat” is about inclusion — take in, throw out.  No one really knows what the mechanism of the distinction is, but it relates to the “skin,” the membrane of separation.  It seems to be all about organic chemistry, a subject I never studied.

What I did study was theatre, so inside the cell is like “onstage” and outside the cell is like everything else.  The rules are different, the story unspools separately.  But for cells there is no screenwriter and no audience.  Except us, who are both.

First is sentience, which is somehow to detect the world by creating simulacra inside the skin.  These are registered, sorted, and managed by the brain cells as soon as there IS a brain, but a brain cannot exist without being fed the information of the senses.  The idea of a stand-alone brain is a philosophical unjustified separation between all the stuff inside the creature and an “enlightenment” notion of near-mathematical logic, which is a derivative of sentience, the evidence.  The brain arose (emerged) to fill the need for sentience sorting when the senses were bringing in too much data to “make sense” otherwise.

The flowers and other plants unfold themselves into the world without senses and without awareness or thought.  The bugs have purpose and must have senses because they are moving in the world — towards what can be eaten, away from what will eat them.  But they don’t reflect about it or even know they are doing it.  They just act on the basis of the distinctions in the quality of the world that they can detect.

“Yes, even tiny insects have brains, though the insect brain doesn't play as important a role as human brains do. In fact, an insect can live for several days without a head, assuming it doesn't lose a lethal amount of hemolymph upon decapitation.”

“Some of the other animals that survive without brains include the sea star, sea cucumber, sea lily, sea urchin, sea anemone, sea squirt, sea sponge, coral, and Portuguese Man-O-War. A brain is basically what results when a large group of nerve cells called neurons form one large cluster.”

Some would argue that these creatures are actually plants or at least transitional between plants and animals.  A brain is actually only a cluster of neurons with an internal interaction among them.  “an organ of soft nervous tissue contained in the skull of vertebrates, functioning as the coordinating center of sensation and intellectual and nervous activity.”

It was careless of the above definer to speak of “intellect” — “the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively, especially with regard to abstract or academic matters.”  Intellect and its friend, imagination, are a function of brains but not in all animals and not even in all humans.  Creating ideas on the evidence of brains is quite different from the other two functions of brains, which are taking in sensations, sorting them, and causing movement.

Awareness and responsiveness are possible from the one-cell stage and on after that.  Increasing awareness by developing new senses (we now identify up to a hundred in humans, some of them located in single cells) means developing brains into more specialized parts. 

Most of what happens in a creature is automatic unless something goes wrong.  Otherwise, the brain’s consciousness of itself, its ability to be “objective” and aware of what its awareness is doing, is a high level operation that uses very little of the brain's doings and yet encompasses all of the brain as well as the liquid state of the body, for much of what we call “emotion” is not even in a cell, but floating as molecular information between the cells, what we affect when we take drugs.  The purpose of many organs is to manage this flow of molecules including oxygen.

Both plants and animals, both sea cucumbers and sea captains, manage their umwelt, their internal existence by circulating fluid because they arose in liquid.  A dried out creature is dead, unless it has some way of taking in more fluid and starting up the circulation all over again.  Seeds do this.  DNA is a seed.

Even the desert, when irrigation is provided, can come back to “life” by rehydrating the DNA instructions under circumstances that will allow them to form a new membrane between themselves and the world.  This planet is alive because it has a membrane of atmosphere around it that keeps in the necessary liquids and because it has a molten/moving core that shifts the tectonic plates and the continents on their backs around, floating, so that variations and changes require adaptations, which drive evolution.  Evolution is life, life is change.  But to keep everything from flying apart (“entropy increases everywhere”) we need that membrane, that skin, that conductive barrier between ourselves and our world.

It is surprising how much evidence of the deep and wondrous past is preserved in molecules, chemical isotopes, patterns of formation and movement, on earth and as it is in heaven.  I have no interest at all in reconciling all this with conventional American “religion” which is mostly a media hodge-podge.

But my vision of culture is one of circulation, permeable membranes, and fractal movement across time, carrying both living plants and animals and their potential, both dessicated latent information, and beings with active minds that have purposes of their own, one of which is often making a record, creating a memory, though it may all fly apart and mean nothing, which is unlikely given all the traces around us of things not yet detected.

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