|From: A Million Different Things by David Stone|
No matter how many times we hear that number, no matter how easily the words spin off our lips, it’s so big we can probably never grasp it in a practical way. But it’s a number we really should think about because it’s approximately the number cells we have at our command in the evolved contraption we know as our bodies.
Each of us is different, of course, and no one has or ever will count them all. Future generations will arrive at a more exact count, but if the average turns out to be thirty, sixty or even a hundred-trillion, the organization and coordination among them will still seem miraculous. After a few hundred billion, the numbers have no meaning anyway. They’re too vast. It’s sort of like the perception I have when the temperature is five or ten degrees below zero. I can’t tell the difference from one degree to the next. Cold is cold, and an unimaginable number remains just as incomprehensible as it gets larger.
Fifty-trillion cells going about their business, mostly designed to operate without conscious management. The really amazing thing is that, although each comes to life with identical DNA, each still goes on to a specific and designated purpose–as if they know which must get down to the business of building muscle and which must generate bone marrow. Lung cells of one type facilitate respiration by producing lubricants hour after hour, day after day, without our posting a single memo or calling a meeting. Other cells get involved as distant bronchiole interact with blood cells near our hearts to trade oxygen for carbon dioxide. The oxygen flows through our blood streams all the way out to the tiniest capillaries in our feet and hands, fueling metabolic engines, before our veins carry back carbon dioxide, our blood now fouled and blue. Waste is shipped back to our lungs to be exhaled in a future breath. This is a simple version that doesn’t begin to do justice to the intricate dance of molecules working together ceaselessly to generate the energy that lets us live. Whole textbooks are devoted to the finely tuned details. The thing to remember is that it happens, without interruption, from the moment in which we are born until we draw our last breath, and unless we get into trouble, most of us never think about it twice.
Not only do thousands of activities take place simultaneously and in actual coordination throughout our bodies, each seems to know enough about the others to adjust accordingly. Fluids and temperatures harmoniously adjust according to conditions. Mishaps occur, of course, and the chain reactions can be catastrophic. Yet, when we stop to think about all that is going on, even in the relatively simple process of transferring an idea to my fingers where they rest on a keyboard as I watch words appear on a screen and as I also cook up the next, connecting idea, a glimpse of the miracle of this wet machine begins to take shape. When we take it a step further and recognize that all those other millions of unrelated interactions continued simultaneously, it would be next to impossible to find a more apt definition of mind-boggling.
Our default way of seeing ourselves is as a collection of macro objects: arms, legs, mouth, etc, connected but independent. In the musical Hair, Claude joyfully declares his body parts in the song, I Got Life. For Claude and The Tribe, it’s an exclamation of wondrous discovery. It’s an impressive operation, ordinarily taken for granted, when our legs carry us along above our cushioning feet while our arms swing or stiffen or search for tunes on our iPods. Claude throws off shackles to proclaim his affection for the body the world he grew up in wants him to stay silent about. “I got my ass!” he sings in a happy phrase. We get the message that he won’t be taking any of it for granted any longer.
When the show was still fresh and confrontational and not promoted as a close to the mainstream celebration of life, when its wrenching Vietnam war theme was contemporary and physical inhibitions were being blown apart, I went to see Hair at Shea’s in Buffalo. Ushers in blue jeans and ragged shirts taunted ticket-holders in the aisles. One insulted an older gentleman by fanning the scent of his exposed armpit in his direction. “You talk like you’ve been around for a thousand years,” he taunted. By the time Hollywood got hold of it and churned out a doctored, mass audience version in movie theaters, the show was cringe-worthy in its use of clichés and La La Land tackiness. Such is how rebellion filters down through the media until it’s diluted enough to be digestible in Omaha.
Social networking and the immediacy of the internet are changing the mechanics, but because successful evolution engages protective filters, we will find ways to slow and smooth the bumps and grinds of change. The evolution of wisdom is too important to become a disorienting slugfest.
Returning to the microscopic interactions that make each of us possible physically, I want to dip sideways long enough mention the generally accepted estimate that ninety percent of the cells making up the fluid operations we think of as a human body are nonhuman cells.
Yes, ninety percent of the cells that make up the operations known as you and me as we walk, talk, eat and sleep are not human. Bacteria in vast numbers perform the rituals of digestion in our intestines. Viruses and fungi exist comfortably on and under our skin. Organisms without human DNA assist in making ingested nutrients usable for vital operations, providing essential bridges between dissimilar cells. The reason we are not aware of being outnumbered is that the human cells are, on average, much larger, and as a result, our bodies are more human than not in volume. We’re just lucky our bodies are not democracies, one cell, one vote.
What we seem to be is an all powerful monarchy with a king or a queen dispatching orders that are conveyed along chemical and electrical pathways, recognizing, organizing and maintaining the whole shebang, from the lowliest toenail growth to the highest impulse to search for gods. This monarch gets no days off. He or she is not even granted the leisure of a quiet soak in the restorative waters. An interesting thing happens if he or she decides to quit. The rest of the kingdom collapses in rapid sequence. It comes to a chilly halt as all the operations cease, one by one.
Who really is in charge here? When did we last order the bacteria in our small intestines to team up with our pancreases to digest lunch or to build the scaffolding known as our immune systems? When did we tell the clusters of spongy cells that make up our brains to enact the process of changing connections to adjust for new thoughts and where to store fresh information and recent memories?
The greatest miracle of all may be that so much goes on–in fact, almost everything goes on–without our awareness or intervention. It’s one of those givens I mentioned in the beginning. It all just works, as does the physical environment outside and connected to us. We touch, we feel, we hear, we see. All of it enters our brains in such an unstoppable deluge that, here we go again, we have evolved a method for looking at only a necessary smidgen of it.
Management by exception is an idea pilfered from our active minds. It’s why we have an unconscious anyway. Forget how badly some of us manage our invisible lives. Try getting your thoughts around the work of looking at and analyzing everything in every moment consciously. A day may come when we have enough brain capacity and awareness to do so, assuming evolution sees the value, but we are many, many miles from that place now. As it stands, our minds are gems of efficiency, managing interlocked systems of indescribable complexity. It’s as if we installed the perfect assistant, one who doesn’t bother us with any but the big things that we must know and decide about. The rest our assistant files and assigns without bothering our reverie, and life goes on.
On the other hand, if our brains house incredible assistants, we still haven’t decided who threw that rock.
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