By Joe Perez
Everyone knows the human individual is autonomous, a separate being in itself. Not so fast, says evolutionary biologist David P. Barash of the University of Washington, writing recently in “Who’s in Charge Inside Your Head?” for the New York Times. Drawing on research into parasites which alter the consciousness of their victims, Barash says:
It may be distressing to those committed to “autonomy,” but such manipulators [as Echinococcus and Dicrocoelium] have inherited the earth. Including us.
Take coughing, or sneezing. It may be beneficial for an infected person to cough up or sneeze out some of her tiny organismic invaders, although it isn’t so healthful for others nearby. But what if coughing and sneezing aren’t merely symptoms but also, even primarily, a manipulation of us, the “host,” by influenza viruses? Shades of zombie bees, fattened mice and grass-blade-besotted ants.
Just as Lenin urged us to ask “who, whom?” with regard to social interactions — who benefits at the expense of whom? — the new science of evolutionary medicine urges a similar question: who benefits when people show symptoms of a disease? Often, it’s the critters that are causing the disease in the first place.
But what about the daily, undiseased lives most of us experience? Voluntary actions are, we like to insist, ours and ours alone, not for the benefit of some parasitic or pathogenic occupying army. When we fall in love, we do so for ourselves, not at the behest of a romance-addled tapeworm. When we help a friend, we aren’t being manipulated by an altruistic bacterium. If we eat when hungry, sleep when tired, scratch an itch or write a poem, we aren’t knuckling under to the vices of our viruses.
But it isn’t that simple….
Here, then, is heresy: maybe there is no one in charge — no independent, self-serving, order-issuing homunculus. Buddhists note that our skin doesn’t separate us from the environment, but joins us, just as biologists know that “we” are manipulated by, no less than manipulators of, the rest of life. Who is left after “you” are separated from your genes? Where does the rest of the world end, and each of us begin?
Buddhists aren’t the only philosophers to question the existence of a separate individual self, cut off from others by an impenetrable wall. Mystics in every major world religious tradition have questioned the reality of “self,” and so have Western philosophers such as Leibniz and Hegel. Evolutionary biologists aren’t original in their conclusions about individuality; but they are unique in arriving at their conclusions through scientific investigation of biology.
In World Spirituality, drawing on pre-modern, modern, and post-modern sources of wisdom alike, there is the belief or realization that the separate self is an illusion or false or a partial truth. The self is not separate, but it is a feature of a seamless Self. Our vision allows us to affirm the reality of individual experience as distinct — indeed, irreducibly unique (Unique Selves) — while simultaneously affirming the Oneness which is the ultimate Self.
Barash says, “maybe there is no one in charge,” but we would prefer to say, “the Unique Self is in charge.”