Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Alien Systems?

 Are we only a quarter percent human?

The following is from Marcus Chown’s popular science book What a Wonderful World, (Faber and Faber, 2013):

“The sheer number of alien bacteria in your body might actually underrate their importance. The Human Microbiome Project found that microorganisms that inhabit your body have a total of at least 8 million genes, each of which codes for a protein with a specific purpose. By contrast, the human genome contains a mere 23,000 genes.Consequently, there are about 400 times as many microbial genes exerting their effect on your body as human genes. In a sense, you are not even as much as 2.5 per cent human – you are merely 0.25 per cent human. Since the alien cells in your body are largely prokaryotes, which are much smaller than eukaryotes, they add up to a few kilograms or a mere 1–3 per cent of your mass. They are not encoded by your DNA but infected you after birth, via your mother’s milk or directly from the environment. They were pretty much all in place by the time you were three years old. It is fair to say that we are born 100 per cent human but die 97.5 per cent alien.” (pg. 17)

Yet, it seems that it’s actually exactly the other way round: the more “alien” then the more human we become. We’re born with only minimal elements of our humanity and only develop them as we become increasingly distributed throughout systems as we age. And, even if it is wrong to think of this distribution as negating our essential humanity, it does point to a key feature of this distribution, that is, it takes place across different systems: systems of matter; psychic systems of consciousness and social systems of inter-subjective meaning.

As is well known (not least through the examples given in Lacan and Merleau-Ponty) a child begins to differentiate itself from its environment from between 6 to 18 months. It becomes materially, psychically and socially independent. Quite obviously it doesn’t become more alien. On the contrary the child’s humanity develops as it becomes a self-reflexive system distributed throughout other systems. This development continues as the child enters into other systems: language; culture; technology; history; nature.

As Andy Clarke puts it in Supersizing the Mind (Oxford, 2011): “cognition leaks out into body and world.” And when it does so this leakage takes our humanity with it. As we become enmeshed in all of our world’s complex systems the more we can realise our human-ness.

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