Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On Not Being a Snake or a Termite

Now that I’m happy (I feel like those, “I’m full!” Taco Bell commercials from back when I had TV), I might not have as many interesting, funny things to rant and write about. And I’ve been meaning to type up funny stories from my past – the things I tell people when I’m entertaining them, but never think to write down. A few days ago, someone told me that I should really write the story of my senior thesis, that in addition to the thesis itself, the story of its development is interesting. So that is coming soon. In the meantime, here’s a REALLY LONG nerdy thing I wrote.

The following is from an e-mail I wrote to a friend, responding to a rant/vent and request for advice. I’ve edited it for a more general audience. I’m leaving the pure advice part, in the beginning, in the text, because it kind of sums up other things I’d want to write about anyway.

The answer, in my opinion, is simple. Do What Makes You Happy. At the place I am in right now, this is what I think is important. Do what makes you happy without doing harm to anything else. Your "purpose in life" and all things like that will probably follow. If you are happy, relaxed, calm, you will be more able to accept what's around you and more able to do good things (like be nice to people, be patient, etc.) Of course these things still require thought and effort...but being happy, having certain needs satisfied, will help. I mean really happy, not "happy" because you got all kinds of cool stuff and you're having FUN!!!!!!!1 but that real, peaceful happiness.

I don't remember much about Taoism from Religions of the Eastern World 101 or whatever (and let's not forget my senior thesis was about Taoism in literature, so I should totally remember more) but the thing that stood out to me the most was the concept of Wu Wei, which my professor defined as “non-action.” If you see a snake in the path, don't fight the snake. Walk around the snake, or choose a different path. Obviously it's not always that easy to know what the snake is and what the path of non-action is. Sometimes non-action is impossible, and the path of least action, the path most in accordance with the Way, is not immediately clear. However, if it does seem clear - if you are happy and have an opportunity to be happy without harming others, I suggest not fighting it. Don’t create/be a snake.

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This goes for your Purpose in Life, too. If you are not creating a lot right now (haha I first wrote "write" now), maybe you aren't meant to do it RIGHT NOW RIGHT NOW. You're still young. It's not a bad idea to set aside some time - I wish I made more time to at the very least record what I'm doing right now. But anyway, the short answer is, I wouldn't worry about it. If you want to socialize, socialize, as long as it's healthy and really making you happy. Humans are social creatures. It is an inseparable part of who we are – physically, psychologically. Humans are not meant to be solitary beings, and I think that trying to go against this will make one crazy, even if the reason is simply chemical/biological. To a certain extent, I think that self denial will not help one do more good in the world. Following the path that seems to fall in front of you, including engaging in human socialization, could lead you to Whatever It Is You’re Supposed To Do.

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[This was part of the advice, but this is something I’ve been reflecting on and meaning to blog about for a few weeks now.]

I've been thinking somewhat lately about the concept of purpose in life, and wondering if perhaps we overcomplicate things. Part of what has led to these thoughts is the information that I’ve been receiving in my classes. I am taking an entomology class and a soil class, so in both of these classes, we talk about small “yucky” organisms that are essential to everything we do, to all life, but aren’t thought about much by most people. I suppose what happens when you double major in a humanities field and a scientific field is that you start to mush things together in your head.

On Purpose in Life: The human crab louse spends its whole life cycle on the genitalia of one person. Its entire world is localized to not just its host species, not just to a specific host, but to a specific part of that host. It doesn't think, "I could totally be head lice today. I'll try it out."
So, we have the entire planet as our potential habitat, and some organisms just have somebody's crotch.

On socializing: Termites are "social creatures", and I think the professor said something like, insects like this show the beginning of social behavior in life forms. I am hesitant with my wording here, because I don’t want to come out and say that termites are less evolved, that this is primitive social behavior. It’s tempting to go there, but I’m not sure if it’s accurate.

For example, something I learned about in various classes last year, something I found incredibly fascinating, is that many species of insects actually practice agriculture. I’m not kidding. (I also won’t be offended if any of my three readers skip past the science part.) The genus Atta, for example, comprises leaf-cutter ants that actually farm a certain type of fungus. The leaf-cutter ants don’t actually rely on the leaves that they bite off of trees (sometimes causing a defoliation disaster) for their nutrition. It’s usually said that they do not have the enzymes to digest the leaves, though I think there’s some question of this now. The ants actually carry the leaf pieces to their fungus garden and feed them to the fungus. The fungus has the enzymes to digest the plant material. The ants can then consume part of the fungus, and this is how they survive. This behavior can actually be pretty complex. For example, if they need to move their nest, there are ants (I think the queen) who know to carry part of the fungus with the colony to the new nest, and they know how to re-establish this fungus so that it will grow in the new nest. The ants know to stop the fungus from producing fruiting bodies (which just look like little brown mushrooms when allowed to grow). HOWEVER, the ants also know to let the fruiting bodies develop once in awhile, if the fungus does need to reproduce. Otherwise they encourage the fungus to just grow and digest plant matter for them to eat.

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Back to termites and their social behavior, and how it’s making me think about human roles. The division of labor in the termite colony is pre-determined, by morphology or genetics or something. (You can see how little I’m paying attention in class.) My point is that it is clear for them whether they are the queen, a worker, a soldier, or whatever. If they are not the queen, their job is to protect the queen or to serve her in some capacity. The queen serves a function as well, so it’s all very harmonious. If the nest is attacked or damaged somehow, the termites (the soldiers or workers, I can’t remember which) sense this and immediately rush to the damaged area. They throw themselves into the hole and cement themselves in. They plug up the holewith their bodies and die in order to save the nest.

When the professor said this, cries of “Ohhh!” and “Aww!” arose from the class. My professor responded that this is not sad at all. The termites “aren’t alive like you’re thinking of it.” Their individual life is not the same as our life or that of our pet cat. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t important, but the life of a termite is not like the life of a human being, with all this potential and all these options.

People are not termites. I don’t know which is more advanced, or if such a qualification just doesn’t apply here. First of all, it’s interesting to note that “social behavior” doesn’t exist in all life. Amoebas and bacteria just live, they eat things, things eat them, they die. They don’t get sad about it. They probably don’t defend each other. It’s also interesting to think of “social behavior” as being so different from our own, though people will try to argue that some individuals aren’t important, that they exist as a functional group in a colony, that their life and death do not matter and that their is a real hierarchy or caste system. Blah. "Social behavior" like we have now perhaps began (if we are to consider insects as less evolved than we are) as no sense of the self as an individual, but as performing a function - being born into it. (Back to Purpose in Life.) It must be so easy – the being’s morphology dictates who it is. As the human crab louse never thinks of migrating up to the head to be a head louse, the worker termite probably never thinks, "But I WANT to a soldier! I can overcome the limitations of my morphology to be a soldier!” I’m not going where it may look like I’m going with this – that people, similarly, shouldn’t try to overcome their “limitations,” that some role is determined for us by our geographic location and morphology and even our gender.

I’ll switch to soil biology now. In a teaspoon of soil, there is a HUGE amount of life. Microbes! Rotifers! Hundreds of them! Dozens of nematodes! Some insects! Probably some plant-y things. Meters of fungal mycelia! Some insects, and maybe a big old earthworm.
For some organisms, a few square inches of soil is THE ENTIRE WORLD. It is their Earth. Just as for the human crab louse, somebody’s crotch is their Earth.
And when I come to conclude, I run out of steam a bit. Clearly, our individual lives are important. Even though one could come up with hundreds of counter examples, showing how humans sacrifice themselves, for example, to save “the nest,” it’s not that simple. For one thing, there are people left behind to mourn their death. One could make conjectures about human mob behavior. (And I’m sure there are exceptions in termites and ants and lice, even if no humans have observed them.)

But mostly what I take from this, this crapload of information, is that when getting confused by the big picture, it’s a good idea to stop and focus on some small aspect of it. You don’t cross a road in one giant step. You take little steps. Sometimes you can’t see the end of a road when you first start walking. Quit trying to! Focus on where you are right now, and the rest will become clear. If you look ahead to much, you could miss out on what’s near you. You’ll miss something nice, or you’ll miss some uneven ground, trip, fall flat on your face, and maybe not even make it to the end of the road. So there.

Anyway, when life seems so complicated and huge, I think it might help in the future (though I’m not 100% sure how) to think about how much life is in a teaspoon of soil, how for some organisms their Earth is an area a million times smaller. And for some organisms, their life purpose is predetermined by their morphology. I’m not quite sure what I’m trying to say – maybe that it’s ok if we don’t save the world by the age of twenty-five, or visit every continent by the time we’re thirty. It’s OK if we just inspire one student or friend this month, and it’s OK if we don’t even manage to get out of Middlesex County all week.

Feel free to discuss, my three readers!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awesome - this turned out well.