The Foundations of Life, and the Non-Foundations of Humanity

What do you suppose is the single oldest aspect of life, the one that dates back to the origins of life itself two billion years ago? It’s definitely not sex, because sexual differentiation didn’t arise until more than a billion years later. Is it the desire for food? No, because it’s unlikely that, for the earliest life, feeding was anything other than a passive process through which nutrients entered a cell’s body at random, and were so plentiful that seeking them out wasn’t even a consideration. Shelter? No again, because seeking shelter is a relatively recent development. Yet, if sex, food and shelter are not the most basic element of life itself, what is?

I’ll give you a hint. From the very first second they appeared on the earth, the earliest simple, single-celled organisms formed colonies. They clustered together. They likely didn’t do it with any deliberate intention of associating with each other, and the way in which they associated is not clear, but they did form groups. So forming groups is the earliest, most fundamental aspect of everything living. In fact, it is so fundamental that the cells of our bodies are groups, as is the interior each cell itself. It was the infection of prokaryotes by viruses that led to the emergence of the cell nucleus, and the invasion of those same prokaryotes by bacteria that led to the earliest organelles. Today, nearly everything that lives on earth is not an individual but a community. It is community that underpins all life.

Yet community is also the biggest single drawback of life. We’re all familiar with how, as soon as perfectly adult and wise people form a group, they start functioning within the group like twelve-year-old kids. Forming groups atavizes all of us to a state that prevailed before anything other than prokaryotes existed. This explains the classic Shakesperean mob and the lynching parties so often depicted in westerns. It also explains the deterioration in human conduct when people form emotional attachments, especially romantic ones. It explains the sloppiness and ambiguity of communication and the way everyone is degraded by dependence, whether the dependence is factual or just felt. Hierarchical models of life are no longer considered valid, but it’s difficult to escape using hierarchical words when considering how membership in groups affects us. Each of us considered separately is a whole and complete human; in groups, we are subhuman and primitive.

I say this because of the stupid statement made by so many philosophers over the millennia that society is something uniquely human. Aristotle, in particular, made a total ass of himself by founding his whole view of the world on the notion that forming groups is a defining characteristic of our species. It is, in fact, something that we have in common with everything that lives on earth, from whales to elephants to hydras to plankton. Saying that society makes the man is unutterably boneheaded. Society makes the living thing, but that living thing doesn’t have to be, and most often isn’t, particularly human.

And we have to be careful about glorifying those aspects of ourselves that atavize us by dragging us back to an earlier state before humans existed. More on that in a subsequent diary entry, possibly tomorrow.

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2 thoughts on “The Foundations of Life, and the Non-Foundations of Humanity

  1. I agree that the formation of groups can produce extraordinary amounts of harmful effects, but I do not agree with your proposition that “It is community that underpins all life.” There are several species that live solitary existences – boa constrictors, Tasmanian devils, spotted morays, etc.

    Even the opinion that homo sapiens were originally social animals is debatable. Rousseau disputed this very notion in his Second Discourse. Nevertheless, it is clear that mankind has become a social species, and I am very interested in reading your promised thoughts upon the procedures by which we can ameliorate our present condition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The solitary species you mention are themselves communities. It’s pretty old hat that there is no such thing as an indivdiual, because each living thing is a community of cells–or, in the case of single-celled eukaryotes, a community of cell components, such as organelles, which appear to have originated from the bacterial infection of prokaryotes.

      I’d be interested in doing some reading on the alternative view you mention that our species was not originally social. Do you have any references?

      I actually didn’t promise to propose solutions, but I can try. What I said I’d do is talk about a much more important issue, which is how the glorification of aspects of life we have in common with other living things, tends to atavize us and degrade human life. I still need to sort out how to avoid falling into a retrograde hierarchical view of evolution, so that entry is in the works. Stay tuned 🙂

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