The Biological Origins of Self

Technology is both a cause and a result of our separation from and objectification of nature. It distances us from nature, as today’s artificial environments, reliance on machinery, and processed foods exemplify; on the other hand it is precisely our conceptual distancing from nature that encourages us to apply technology to it as an object of manipulation and control. How did this chicken-and-egg scenario get started? What initiated our separation from nature, of which technology is one aspect?

Jared Diamond has written compellingly of the enormous cascade of changes that followed the adoption of agriculture some ten thousand years ago: writing, math, calendars, division of labor, wars of conquest, private property and its accumulation, money, epidemics, slavery, famines, and so on, making it in his words, “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”[1] He also is one of many authorities to point out that early farmers were “smaller and less well nourished, suffered from more serious diseases, and died on the average at a younger age than the hunter-gatherers they replaced.”[2] Nor did they enjoy easier lives: as mentioned before, hunter-gatherers also enjoy much more leisure than agriculturalists. This leads to one of the most perplexing questions in paleoanthropology: How did agriculture get started? Was it indeed a “mistake”, a bad choice, or was it an unfolding of an inevitable process? And we might also ask the same question of technology in general: Was the entire “ascent of humanity” as a technological species predestined, in the context of anthropology and even evolutionary biology? Is it built in to who we are? Or is technology a mistake repeated again and again, from its earliest pre-agricultural beginnings through agriculture, industry, and information technology?

Agriculture was not the first technology of course; before then we had tools of stone and other materials, we had fire, and we had language. There is no such thing as a pre-technological human being, a pre-technological Homo sapiens. In fact the earliest representative of the genus Homo, Homo habilis, whose fossils date back 2.4 million years, was already a fashioner of stone tools; its successor Homo erectus had gained mastery over fire as well by about 1.5 million years ago.[3] Our hands have since evolved to use tools, our jaws have evolved to eat a diet of softer, cooked foods, our digestive systems have likewise developed the enzymes necessary to digest cooked food, our bodies have lost most of the hair necessary for survival without clothing, our brains have evolved to handle language. While it is certainly possible for a man or woman dropped naked into the wilderness to survive (provided the right training), the way he/she does so is to begin creating tools and building a fire. As these tool-making skills must be taught, not genetically inherited, they surely fit anyone’s definition of technology. Humans are by their very nature technological animals.

Insofar as technology comprises learned (as opposed to genetically encoded) skills for manipulating the physical environment, humans are not even the only animals to use technology. Most mammals and birds learn behaviors for survival from their parents; some even use tools. Chimpanzees not only use sticks as tools, but also select and alter them for purposes of climbing, catching ants and termites, digging roots, withdrawing honey, and as levers.[4]The Egyptian vulture will hold a rock in its beak as a tool for breaking open ostrich eggs.[5] A Galapagos finch uses cactus spines to pry insects from crevices, and a species of crow in New Caledonia goes a step farther by actually creating tools—shaping leaves into blades.[6] If a tool is considered an extension of the body for the purpose of manipulating the environment, then we might even have to consider as tools the calcite shells of microscopic coccolithophores, made from environmental calcium. Where does the body end and the “extension of the body” begin? Here again we run into a perhaps arbitrary or blurry distinction between self and not-self. Our customary self/not-self distinction, a characteristic of our worldview projected onto biology, breaks down under close examination.

The same considerations apply to culture. Birds and mammals learn key behaviors from their mothers, if not through conscious imitation, then through play. At the very least, mothers (and sometimes fathers) provide triggering stimuli for neurological development. Extragenetic information is transmitted (even if the ability to use this information may be “genetically programmed”). After all, our own genes also provide us with the physical structures to learn language. Culture, like technology, is incipient in prehuman biology.

Few people would consider a coccolithophore’s shell to be an example of tool use, and even tool use in birds is usually dismissed as “instinctive.” Likewise, some authorities dismiss the tool use of wild chimpanzees, bonobos, and hooded monkeys with the claim that they don’t really “understand” their tools, that their behavior is somehow automatic, learned through unthinking imitation. Although I do not really “understand” how my computer works either, I will not bother to refute this claim. The main point is that the learned use of extrasomatic objects for the purpose of manipulating or altering the environment began long before human beings walked the earth. We cannot blame technology on an unfortunate decision. What Homo sapiens have wrought is merely an acceleration of what has been going on for billions of years.

Some philosophers distinguish between human and animal technology by observing that humans are the only animals to use tools to make more tools. Does this distinction represent a qualitative cognitive difference between animals and people? It seems somewhat arbitrary. However, the distinction does get at an important characteristic of technology: its cumulative nature, the fact that once started it naturally builds upon itself, progressively distancing its users from their naked origins.

Animal technology is rudimentary at best, but so is their degree of individuation from nature, their consciousness of themselves as separate beings. Consider the possibility that our individuation, our separation from nature, was not a choice or a mistake but an inevitability set in motion before we even became human. Its culmination, then, is to take individuation to the absolute limit implicit in the Newtonian-Cartesian-Darwinian world view.

Since many animals can be considered to use and even manufacture tools, we might expect that the separation of the individual from nature implicit in technology applies to some degree to animals as well. And if animals, why not plants? Fungi? Bacteria? Pre-cellular life (if such once existed)? We commonly look upon primitive humans as being “in harmony with Nature” if not “one with Nature”; all the more for non-human species. Certainly, they are closer to such a state than we are, but even in the simplest of organisms there are intimations of separation, hints of what was to come. I would like you to consider that the current age of separation started eons ago, written into the future through the very dynamics of biological evolution. It did not spring from a blunder, a distinct note of discord that one or another group of hominids introduced into nature’s grand symphony. Separation, rather, is an inevitable unfolding of a cosmic process.

On the most basic level, by maintaining a constant internal environment removed from chemical and thermal equilibrium all living creatures create a distinction between themselves and the outside world. All modern definitions of life draw on this concept, which is called homeostasis.[7] Because homeostasis entails a localized arrest or reversal of entropy, it demands an energy source, for example the sun, through which entropy is in effect exported to the outside environment. By definition, then, life creates a dualism, an inside and an outside, and what’s more requires an irreversible taking from the environment. Speaking in terms of thermodynamics, life exists only at an (entropic) cost to the environment.[8]

Life, then, not only requires but actually is a separating off of a temporarily self-maintaining part of the universe. Contrary to our fundamental cultural assumptions, though, this separation is neither permanent nor absolute, but admits to degrees. Separation, in fact, inexorably builds upon itself and has done so for hundreds of millions of years on earth, first through a biological phase and then through a technological phase.

The distinction between self and environment is minimal among the earliest form of life, the bacteria, which blur the self-other distinction with their fluid sharing of genetic material. Even higher animals and plants, however, rely upon one another for the cocreation of the internal and external environments essential to their mutual existence. No plant or animal is a completely individuated, separate, distinct being. As we shall see in Chapter Six, there is no clearcut, absolutist definition of the self or the organism; our belief to the contrary is only a projection of our mistaken view of our own selves. Nonetheless, the evolution of life from bacteria to higher life forms did set the stage for the radical acceleration of individuation that was to follow.

At this juncture it is necessary to debunk the some obsolete myths about bacterial reproduction. For a long time it was assumed that because there is no shuffling of the chromosomes in asexual reproduction, that evolution must happen very slowly among asexual organisms such as bacteria. As it turns out, bacteria are actually far more genetically promiscuous than other organisms, not less, to the point where the very concepts of species and individual hardly apply to them at all. Bacteria regularly exchange genetic material through a variety of means: via bacteriophages, by emitting plasmids and other DNA fragments into the environment for other bacteria to take up, and even by joining together and directly exchanging genetic material in a kind of asexual bacterial “sex”.[9]

The next major advance in the development of individuation came with the nucleated cell and sexual reproduction. A nucleus insulates the genetic material from the environment and allows for a more discrete, more rigidly demarcated self. Sex replaces the ubiquitous genetic promiscuity of the bacterial world with a severely circumscribed realm of genetic mixing. To the extent to which the genes define the organism (which is vastly overstated), the restriction of gene mixing to the act of sex made the organism more discrete. In light of the fluid genetic sharing of prokaryotic bacteria described above, we can see sexual reproduction not as a innovation bringing organisms closer together, but as a circumscription of a prior openness, a sharper demarcation of boundaries. In other words, sexual genetic mixing channeled into a separate category an interchange that previously happened all the time.

Indulge me while I speculate, half-seriously, that bacterial life is one of near-constant bliss, akin to a perpetual state of sexual union with the universe. When we humans engage in sexual intercourse we recover, for a few moments, a state of being that was once the baseline of existence in a time of greater union and less separation. When we “make love” we let down our boundaries on many levels—hence the appropriateness of that euphemism, love being nothing other than a release of the boundaries that separate us from another being. Bacteria maintain such boundaries far less vigilantly than nucleated organisms, and could thus be said to be that much more in love with the world. All the more blissful would be the state that admits no boundaries whatsoever, not even the homeostatic boundaries of a bacterial membrane, which goes by the name of cosmic consciousness, oneness with God, or universal love. Might we view evolution, by which the self divides from the whole and competes against other selves for survival, as a progressive distancing from that state? In this case we can do “future primitive” radicals such as John Zerzan one better: instead of a mere return to a pre-technological hunter-gatherer state of oneness with nature, let us undo evolution as well as technology—let us overthrow the tyranny of the eukaryotes! It wasn’t with agriculture that we went wrong, nor even with representational language, but with the cell nucleus! I’m joking of course, but also hinting again at the built-in necessity and possible cosmic purpose of the age-old ascent of separation.

The insulation of genetic material in the cell nucleus effectively aligned the survival interests of the organismal self with those of the DNA. Let’s pretend you and I are bacteria with common ancestry. From the perspective of the DNA, since reproduction happens only asexually to produce an exact clone, then my survival is no more important than your survival, and there is no evolutionary impediment to altruism, at least within a given species. Indeed, some have suggested that an entire bacterial species could be considered a single, widely distributed individual. The frequency of horizontal genetic transfer among bacteria further illustrates the relative unimportance of the bacteria qua individual from the perspective of genetic replication.

Contrast this to sexually reproducing taxa, in which each individual is genetically unique. Because you and I (no longer bacteria) have many genes which we do not share, and because we cannot transfer genetic material to each other, it behooves our genes to program us to enact behavior that maximizes our personal survival and reproduction, if even at others’ expense. Animals, because their reproduction is exclusively sexual (with a few exceptions), have the most to gain, genetically, from this type of selfishness. And the more highly differentiated from other species one is, the greater the genetic incentive for selfishness. Separation between the individual and the rest of her species, as well as the rest of nature, has an increasing genetic basis as one moves further down the line of descent.

Let me hasten to add that the above analysis is somewhat misleading, based on several obsolete scientific premises that I hope to debunk in this book. The fact is that competition is much less a determinant of behavior and evolution than commonly supposed, and our view of nature as “red in tooth and claw” is mostly a projection of our own cultural prejudices. We find what we look for. Secondly, the idea that genes “program” behavior and serve as the blueprint of physiognomy is also wrong, a product of our mechanistic worldview; evidence is emerging that the environment triggers and even alters DNA to serve purposes that transcend the individual. Thirdly, the genetic integrity of higher organisms is not so absolute as commonly supposed: plants, fungi, and even animals share the genetic fluidity of the bacteria in previously unsuspected ways. A fourth indication that the supposed genetic integrity of the biological self is largely is cultural projection is that the leap from anuclear bacteria to eukaryotic cells, like other macroevolutionary jumps, happened through a symbiotic merger of simpler organisms. Cooperation, and not competition, is the primary basis of life and the primary engine of evolution. In a later chapter I will explore how this new understanding of life may also provide a model for a new phase of human civilization. For now, suffice it to observe that the individuality of modern single-celled eukaryotes and the multicellular higher plants, animals, and fungi derived from them is built upon a merger of simpler individuals. As Alfred Ziegler puts it in Archetypal Medicine, life is a chimera.

DNA aside, we are all of course permeable to our environment as we routinely exchange materials with the world. We are semi-permanent patterns of flux with an existence independent of the specific material substances that compose us, just as an ocean wave only temporarily comprises a certain collection of water molecules. The molecules simply bob up and down as the wave moves forward onto new ones. Similarly, even though the matter of the universe cycles through each of us at varying rates and in a unique way, we share this matter and, in our relationships, co-determine each other’s ever-mutating patterns of flux. Neither the matter nor its patterning constitute autonomous, independent units. The self has only a conditional reality.

I will explore the details and significance of the paradigm shift in biology in Chapter Six; the key point at present is that to the extent gene-based competition does determine organisms’ behavior, the separation of self from environment has an evolutionary, not merely a technological, basis. Whether through proto-tools or not, living creatures, especially animals, manifest a nascent dualism through their manipulation of the environment for selfish purposes. Even if it together comprises a unified whole, life embodies at least a conditional separation, a fracturing of perspective into mine and yours. Separation began long before humans walked the earth.

 

[1] Diamond, Jared. “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” Discover Magazine, May 1987. P. 64-66. However, note that Diamond’s later writings tend to the opinion that agriculture was inevitable, not a bad choice as the word “mistake” implies.

[2] Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. W.W. Norton & Co. New York, 1997. P. 105

[3] McKee, Jeffrey K. The Riddled Chain: Chance, Coincidence, and Chaos in Human Evolution. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2000. P. 107. Note that various authorities offer widely varying dates for the origin of fire use.

[4] Kosseff, Lauren. “Primate Use of Tools.” http://www.pigeon.psy.tufts.edu/psych26/primates.htm#monkeys

[5] Goodall, Jane and H van Lawick. “Use of Tools by the Egyptian Vulture (Neophron porenoptemus).” Nature. 212: 1468-1469. 1966.

[6] Gee, Henry, 1999. “The Maker’s Mark.” Nature Science Update, http://www.nature.com/nsu/990506/990506-9.html.

[7] Precellular life might be an exception to this homeostatic principle, except for the fact that there is no evidence that non-cellular life has ever existed. The so-called “naked” replicating ribozymes of the proto-biotic soup exist in theory only, and this theory is more a projection of our culture’s notions of self than it is a plausible account of biogenesis—an assertion I will document in Chapter Six.

[8] Even this form of separation can be considered an illusion when we speak of combinatorial rather than thermodynamic entropy. It gets at deep questions about the how an initially low-entropy universe came to be in the first place. At some point, usable energy had to be created out of nothing; either all at once in big-bang cosmology, or ongoingly in steady-state cosmology. In other words, the deep question here is, “Do we live in a universe of scarcity or of abundance?”

[9] For a lucid exposition of lateral gene transfer in bacteria, see W.J. Powell, Molecular Mechanisms of Antimicrobial Resistance, February 2000.