Thursday, 28 February 2008

Who do you think you are?

Just a day after accounting my ongoing love affair with childcare, a new bomb was dropped: we have learnt that one of Dylan’s childcare colleagues (whom he never meets due to their parallel rotations) has now been infected with scabies. Her mother was infected, too.
Luckily for Dylan (and for us) the victim is not the baby with whom Dylan shares a bed and even gets to share the bedding from time to time. However, as a scabies infection takes 4-6 weeks before becoming noticeable and visible we have no idea whether Dylan has been infected (which would, by the way, mean that we are very likely to be infected, too).
An infection of one member of the household is enough for the entire household to require going through this killer ordeal of disinfecting everything, clothes shoes and all. All because of these nice mite creatures god has created in his infinite wisdom (let's face it, god has to be a "he" to be such a pain as to come up with mites).

Thoughts about tiny invaders have reminded me of an article in Scientific American talking about research finding most of us harbor human cells of a different DNA code to ours. These invaders are spread all over our bodies: hearts, bones, the lot. They are talking about cells we have left over from our mothers, and in the case of the mothers themselves they also carry leftover cells from their babies: apparently, these can stick around for 40 years and more, probably the result of some stem cells that crossed the lines.
It sorts of makes me think – when we talk about ourselves, who are we talking about? Who are “we”?
I recall reading, I think it was in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, that we all host many more complete aliens in our bodies – germs and such – than the number of cells we are made of. I don’t know whether my memory is playing tricks on me and I don’t know how correct that claim is, but one thing is undeniably true: all of us contain incredible amounts of alien stuff within ourselves, germs by the billion. Regardless of whether they outnumber our own cells or not, can we consider ourselves to be one unit of a living thing, or should we apply democracy and consider ourselves a sophisticated container of many other living beings? Who is the master and who is the servant here, exactly?
The more advanced version then becomes – who are we? Who am I?

Although thoughts of this nature were common throughout civilised history, only recently have we begun to understand what it is that we are made of. Some of us, however, have been left behind: I recall an argument I've had with my mother when I was 14 while making our way to a bus station. She was saying we're made of flesh and blood, I was saying we're carbon based.
My mother is not alone. Take Buddhists, for example: their religion tells them they shouldn’t kill any living being, and some of them take great measures to avoid doing so. However, each second they are alive their bodies’ immune systems are out there butchering living things. Even if you limit yourself to not killing living things that can feel pain (thus allowing yourself to eat by becoming a vegetarian), you’re still killing all sorts of mites and such whenever you soap your hands. These mites are not that different to flies and other insects; it’s just that they are mostly invisible to us.
Then there’s the question of what takes place after you’re dead. I recall a friend saying she wants to be cremated and not buried because she doesn’t want warms to feed on their body. However, does she realize where the manure that was used to feed the grass that fed the cow that gave the steak she ate the other day come from? I find it funny to observe that most of the people talking at length about the sanctity of a dead body tend to be on the religious side of things, because someone well versed in science would know that we are all made of recycled stuff; the quarks which make us probably spent most of their post big bang lives as hydrogen atoms inside stars or just generally floating out there in space, and even after the earth first appeared they went through quite a lot of adventures before they became a part of a living organism which we ended up eating, very eventually.
Although relatively harmless, the restrictions we impose on ourselves by adopting wishful thinking agendas where we are the crown jewels of creation (read: religious dogmas) become demonstrably silly when looked upon through science tinted glasses.
The reality is that a person can happily exist without killing what most of us would refer to as sentient beings if they really wanted to; no need to be a Buddhist for that. The reality is also that we are all killers to one extent or another by virtue of the fact we are all contenders in a world of limited resources. Even my cremated friend is a killer: by preventing its carbon from being as efficiently recycled as potentially possible she is preventing more life from being able to sustain itself, potentially even feeding and becoming one of her own descendants.
I often find myself scratching my head thinking why it is that so many people prefer to live in their delusional world rather than marvel at the real world we are living in. Hopefully, I won't be finding myself scratching my head too much.

No comments: