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.