The Multicellular Metahuman

Posted on Nov 9, 2005
The Multicellular Metahuman

Given the ruination of our civilization’s millennia-old program of control, some people despair of any solution but to undo the entire history of technology—an option that entails its own despair, as a return to the Stone Age would mean the demise of some 99.8% of the world’s population. Moreover, to advocate a return to the Stone Age is to reject the gifts of hand and mind that make us human, the wonders along with the ruin. Surely, there is an alternative, an expression of our gifts that is not just another technology of dominating, managing, fixing, and controlling. To understand what that might look like, I turn to the human body.

During the Age of the Machine, physiologists attempting to understand the human body assumed that something so complex must possess an orchestrating force, a command-and-control center issuing instructions to the cells. Whether it was the pituitary gland or the nuclear DNA, this would be the seat of the self from which biological being would hierarchically unfold. Their search has proved vain, as even the latest candidate, the DNA, is now understood to be as much an instrument of the bodily environment as it is its blueprint. The DNA is not the unalterable master-plan of the body, but a flexible reservoir of building instructions that can be selected and modified according to the body’s needs.

In contrast to the command-and-control model, a new understanding of the body is emerging as a self-organizing system of feedback networks interlinked across many levels, and utilizing multiple, interrelated media. At the DNA level, the organelle level, the cell level, tissue level, and organ level, horizontally within levels and vertically among them, the body organizes itself through electromagnetic and chemical communications that we are only beginning to decipher.

While many philosophers have compared the social corpus to a gigantic organism of which each person is a cell, they have typically overlooked some key differences between societies and multicellular organisms. These differences will be our clue toward envisioning a society that operates as harmoniously and sustainably as a healthy body.

A key characteristic of healthy body cells is that, like human hunter-gatherers, they completely trust in their environment to provide. Each cell typically sequesters only a tiny amount of glucose within its boundaries, enough for only a few seconds of operation. It trusts in the constant, ongoing supply of food and oxygen from the blood, much as hunter-gatherers eschewed food storage and trusted in the forest (bush, savannah) to provide ongoingly. Marshall Sahlins offers this quote from an early traveler:

In the famine through which we passed, if my host took two, three, or four Beavers, immediately, whether it was day or night, they had a feast for all neighbouring Savages. And if those People had captured something, they had one also at the same time; so that, on emerging from one feast, you went to another, and sometimes even to a third and a fourth. I told them that they did not manage well, and that it would be better to reserve these feasts for future days, and in doing this they would not be so pressed with hunger. They laughed at me. ‘Tomorrow’ (they said) ‘we shall make another feast with what we shall capture.’

Another key characteristic of a body cell is that it exists by and for cooperation with other cells, and not in competition. No cell campaigns to capture more and more of the body’s resources in pursuit of its own “self-interest”. Instead, a successful cell is one that fulfills its role and function in relation to the whole. Yet, more than a passive executor of a role, each cell also participates in the creation of the whole. Through its biochemical, bioelectric, and other as yet unknown signals, it orchestrates near and distant cells into aiding its own functioning, just as others call upon it to aid them.

If we imagine a society based on these characteristics, we come up with something very different than that which we know today. In the present society, personal security is perceived to arise from the accumulation of wealth; in a cellular society, it would arise from a strong local community (tissue), a healthy professional community (organ), and a healthy planetary society (body). Such a society would have a money system that discourages hoarding and promotes the flow of resources toward where they are most urgently needed. (See my description of the demurrage-based system invented by Silvio Gesell.)

Success in a multicellular society would lie in the perfection of each person’s role and function in the world. The purpose of education would be to create a space for each child to find his passion or her calling, akin perhaps to the mysterious manner in which stem cells differentiate into the 200 or so cell types in the human body. No more would we try to force a child into an occupation other than her calling, than we would attempt to force a liver cell to exercise a stomach cell’s functions.

A body is also similar to an ecosystem. In an ecosystem no species is superfluous and no species is redundant. Each species and each organism has a unique contribution to make toward the integrity of the whole. Competition, which we have misunderstood as a war of all against all, is actually a striving for excellence in the fulfillment of a role. Cells, too, do not seek to defeat all the other cells and take over the body, but to function to perfection according to the overall condition. And we might envision a society that operates according to the same principles, wherein the pursuit of excellence lies in the fulfillment of who we are and the flowering of our unique gifts to the world. Only under a Machine model is excellence a matter of subduing individuality to conform to standardized requirements. Cells do not try to be someone else, and neither need we.

In an ecosystem or a body, no species or cell produces waste that the rest is unable to handle. Cells do not poison the body and species do not poison the ecosystem for their own benefit. Of course, a body passes waste into the environment, but that waste is always food for another species. As a whole, life does not pretend to be separate from the totality of life; its functioning recognizes the reality of interdependence. (I would say more—not just interdependence but interbeingness. We are not only not independent from the rest of life; we are not even separate.)

There is an exception to everything I’ve written about the cell. The exception is the cancer cell, which does indeed appropriate body resources to feed its own unlimited growth, which does indeed pump waste into the environment that the environment cannot handle, which has forgotten its original role and function in relation to the whole. Humanity in the Age of Separation resembles in every respect a tumor.

And what is the fate of a tumor? Either it continues to grow until it exhausts every resource, toxifies and then kills the very body upon which it depends, or the body mounts an immune response the destroys the tumor. From the human perspective, these are two bleak alternatives. But perhaps there is another possibility.

Perhaps what we are seeing on Planet Earth is not a disease but a metamorphosis. Humanity is poised at the edge of a phase-shift that will transform us from a bunch of competing separate beings into a multicellular meta-organism. The requisite communication media, analogous to a body’s hormonal and electromagnetic systems, are almost fully in place. The crises that are converging in our lifetimes signify a pupation, a transformation of the Gaian body. Perhaps instead of a tumor, what we are seeing is the growth of a new organ, an organ whose emergence was prefigured in ancient DNA and waited billions of years until the time was ripe. To grow this new organ indeed demands every resource of the Gaian body; perhaps there is a danger indeed that the metamorphosis will fail, that the new organ will turn cancerous, that it will kill the host or be eliminated by the immune system until the time is ripe again.

Obviously, humanity can only become a viable organ of a transformed Gaia if we enact the principles of a multicellular body or an ecology in our society. Fortunately, the futility of the program of control, on both the personal and the collective level, is becoming increasingly obvious. The very crises that threaten to ruin the earth are also propelling us into a new relationship to the earth and each other. A tremendous spiritual awakening is making the headlong pursuit of me and mine at the expense of the whole obsolete. Already as individuals people are moving toward “living in the gift” and devoting themselves to the full flowering of their uniqueness. Usually a personal crisis sparks this change, a near-death experience, a great loss, an implosion of the personal program of management and control. Unavoidably, the ruin of our planet will increasingly invade personal life and bring more and more people to crisis. It is their choices that will add up to the phase-shift into the new multicellular metahuman.