After their trip to the art museum, Willy and Philly find themselves in an aquarium. While strolling through exhibits of aquatic creatures both stunning and grotesque, Philly is suddenly transfixed by a truly ethereal sight. Possessed by a sense of insatiable curiosity, he points his finger to it and asks Willy, “What the hell is that?”
Fig 1. From the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s tumblr.
“That, my inquisitive friend, is a siphonophore,” Willy replies, stepping close to the glass to observe its unearthly grace.
“Is it really even … there? It looks so … so … tenuous, as though it’s floating into and out of existence. In one moment, I see lots of little fluorescent creatures in the water, but then in another, I see the whole creature that they collectively make up.”
“Yes, it does tend to have that nebulous quality to it,” Willy notes.
“So is it a single thing, or many different things?” Philly says.
“Oh Jesus, we’re back at the art museum, aren’t we?” Willy quips sarcastically.
“What do you mean?”
“It sounds like we’re having precisely the same conversation that we had earlier this afternoon, about parts and wholes. Has it ever occurred to you that we’re always in the same place talking about the same thing? As though nothing actually changes?” Willy says with wonder, stroking his beard as though on the verge of grasping some great truth.
Philly, still transfixed by the siphonophore, tunes out all of Willy’s commentary. “What was that? Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention. Too bad the mind can only be occupied with so many things at one single time.”
“Never mind. Yes, taxonomists seem to have decided that this is in fact an individual organism,” Willy answers Philly’s original question.
“I want to have a chat with whoever decided that this – this – well, this whatever-it-is is one thing. This person has also got to support the view that a dense colony of ants is one organism,” Philly asserts.
“And why might that be?” Willy presses.
“Well, have a look at the siphonophore’s Wikipedia page,” Philly notes as he launches the browser on his Smartphone. “It says here that, although the siphonophore ‘may appear to be a single organism, each specimen is in fact a colonial organism composed of small individual animals called zooids that have their own specific function for survival.’ Consider the colony of ants. If they are all performing a specific task to help the entire colony survive, then shouldn’t the colony, like the siphonophore, be regarded as an individual thing?”
“Then what’s it an individual of?”
“What do you mean?” Philly inquires.
“Well, Philly, if the colony of ants is an individual, then it must be an individual belonging to some broader class, right? We’re able to say that there are individual ants because we recognize that there is a general category of “ant,” and we call something a ant if it has a sufficient number of the properties that we associate with “ant-ness.” You suggest that a colony of ants counts as an individual organism, but it is by virtue of the colony itself that the ants themselves can be called individuals. The colony acts as the more general grouping under which the individual acts fall. So what is the universal order, or species, or classification that the colony of ants participates in?”
“Naturally, the colony is an individual member of the entire species of ant, just like a single siphonophore, which is composed of individual zooids, is also a member of the species of siphonophore,” Philly responds.
“But is the individual siphonophore participating in the species or is the species participating in the individual siphonophore?” Willy ponders.
“You’ve got me confused again.”
“Well, the species wouldn’t exist without the individual, right? If there were no siphonophores, there wouldn’t even be the concept of a siphonophore,” Willy clarifies.
“Ugh, now we’re just going to get into a long-winded conversation about a priori forms. Yes, I agree with you, but Plato wouldn’t,” Philly says, entertaining Willy’s line of reasoning.
“So then, the synergy between individual ants gives rise to the concept of a colony, just like the interconnectedness of the individual zooids results in the concept of a siphonophore. In other words, the existence of the “one” is contingent on the interactions of “many” individuals. But the idea of the “many” is derived from the “one”; if there were not the notion of a siphonophore – that is, of a single set of qualities that conceptually unify the individual zooids together – then we would think of it instead as a collection of zooids. We have this paradox: the many stem from the one, which stems from the many, and so on ad infinitum. The siphonophore, when conceived of as a siphonophore, cannot exist unless there is first the concept of an siphonophore, but the concept originates from its manifestation in the form and body of an individual siphonophore. There is, therefore, no siphonophore,” Willy argues with the rhetorical flourish of a trained philosopher.
“What on earth do you mean there is no siphonophore? I can see it with my own two eyes in this goddamn tank!” Philly exclaims, frustrated as always by the seemingly circular reasoning of his friend.
“Oh, there is no siphonophore, but there is something. As the Diamond Sutra says, ‘There are no things or people, yet there are,'” Willy muses mysteriously.
“Huh? You’re speaking in tongues.”
“I’m saying, the labels that we use to describe the world through language are, at their fundamental level, entirely meaningless. Those labels don’t really exist; only the things that they signify do,” Willy states.
“But labels are what we use to differentiate objects from one another. It’s only because I label this thing a chair and this other thing a table that I know they are two separate things. If there are no meaningful labels, then isn’t everything the same thing, deep down?”
“Yeah, seems pretty hard to believe, doesn’t it? But every discrete object that exists in the universe is part of the totality of Being, right? If something weren’t participating in Being itself, then it wouldn’t actually be anything in the first place. Everything that exists is a manifestation of this basic, totally cardinal Being-ness or such-ness that underlies the surface appearances of all things, the very concept of an object without which the thing would not exist,” Willy says.
“Sure, I agree that we’re all part of something that is much bigger than ourselves – which, incidentally, we certainly do not access in our everyday sensory experience of the world. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a difference between the individual things that make up the larger network, whole, or whatever you’d like to call it,” Philly suggests, skeptical as always.
“You still seem to be suggesting that there is such a thing as an individual. Let me ask you another question, then. Is there any part of you that isn’t suffused with Being?”
“I have no idea what exactly you mean whenever you talk about this “Being,” but sure, I suppose you’re right,” Philly answers.
“And there is no part of me that isn’t suffused with Being either. I am Being, and you are Being, so you and I are the same,” Willy says.
To distract himself from the massive metaphysical puzzle that Willy was unraveling, Philly glanced over at the siphonophore and once more observed the ethereal dance that it was performing, each fluid stroke a product of many interconnected movements. He was so entranced by the dual existence and non-existence of the creature, its perpetually changing yet simultaneously unchanging nature that he could not help but move forward to touch it. Philly noticed a toddler nearby who seemed equally captivated by the siphonophore, crawling towards the glass cage on all fours. For a moment, she paused to stare at the creature with starry-eyed wonder, and then, in an apparent moment of epiphany, she firmly planted both feet on the floor. Philly watched as she, with an exerted sense of purpose, pressed against the balls of her feet, stretched her knees to rise upwards, and whirled her arms to gain balance, until all the disparate limbs of her body became engaged in one act. Meanwhile, the siphonophore, perhaps detecting her steps, swam towards the boundaries of its cage and extended its tail to the glass, where the toddler had already pointed her outstretched arm. As they made contact without making contact, something remarkable happened: the siphonophore suspended its amorphous shape to form a perfect line with the toddler’s hand, which basked in the warm glow of its fluorescence as though there were no glass separating them at all.
For a moment, Philly thinks he understands, but soon realizes he is only more confused.
The paradox of the siphonophore drives at the heart of a question that philosophers, taxonomists, ecologists, and scientists of many other disciplines have contemplated for years: what constitutes an individual organism?
Indeed, the creature seems to exemplify both sides of a dichotomy discussed by the Renaissance man Kenelm Digby, a man of “many parts” who spent much of his life thinking about what it means to be whole. In his Two Treatises, Digby wrote that there are two sorts of living creatures. The first is one in which “the whole body seems to be the course and thoroughfare of one constant action … wherein we may observe one and the same constant progress throughout, so that the operation of one part is not at all different from that of another,” he claimed. “The bodies of the second sort,” on the other hand, “have their parts so notably separated from one another, and each of them have such a peculiar motion proper unto them, that one might conceive they were every one of them a complete distinct total thing by itself.”
Stripped of its rhetorical flourishes, Digby’s commentary doesn’t contain any strikingly original insights. Digby is merely making explicit a largely unconscious, evolutionarily programmed mechanism in your brain that categorizes the objects of the world according to their shared and unshared qualities. If prompted, you would probably identify a concrete, material bounding as the single most important trait that differentiates an individual from a collective. An ant is contained within a solid body, whereas a colony of ants is not.
The siphonophore, however, poses a challenge to this process. Not only is the siphonophore a creature made of many creatures, but it is also composed of individual zooids that can function both independently and interdependently. On the one hand, zooids that exist outside the siphonophore are independent structures that can perform all of its requisite tasks for survival without the assistance of another organism. On the other hand, zooids within the siphonophore are physically attached to the same stem, such that they share the same circulation and digestive systems; nonetheless, each one carries out a separate function that is necessary for the health of the overall system (that is, the siphonophore).
Since ecologists treat the siphonophore as a single organism, perhaps we ought to define an individual in biology as any network whose parts are functionally interdependent upon each other, so each part cannot successfully operate itself unless every other part in the system performs its respective function. This idea is evident in the fact that many biologists label a coral reef as an individual organism; in fact, it is commonly accepted to call the Great Barrier Reef the largest living creature in the world. Framed another way, the proposed definition suggests that the individual arises not from the aggregation of its constituent parts but instead through the relationships that each of these parts bear to one another. The siphonophore exists not because the zooids are clustered together in a fairly dense region of space, but instead because each of the zooids plays a specified role that permits the survival of the overall system.
There are two significant consequences of this definition. First, it blurs our traditional distinction between the individual and the collective, since it recognizes that the individual is in fact a collective. Within each human being, for example, lives a diverse and astoundingly complex nexus of cells. Yet we consider each human being to be one thing and not many things because those cells are cooperating with one another to form something greater than themselves. Indeed, as the 20th century zoologist Charles Manning Child wrote, “the organic individual appears to be a unity of some sort, its individuality consists primarily in its unity, and the process of individuation is the process of integration of a mere aggregation into such a unity.”
Secondly, individuality does not necessarily have anything to do with the spatial proximity of constituent parts. That is, objects that have no relation to each other (that, in other words, are totally independent) do not comprise an individual even if they are all localized on the same body. An ant colony, therefore, has just as much of a claim to individuality as a single ant does, as long as each of the ants collaborates with one another to contribute to the overall condition of the colony.
Furthermore, it turns out that nature prefers this definition of individuality over others. In the last decade, biologists and philosophers of science have advanced the view that certain assemblages of functionally interdependent organisms can serve as fundamental units in evolution. Back in 2008, a pair of scientists from Israel proposed that natural selection can act upon a macrobial host (such as a plant or animal) and all of its associated microorganisms, which together form something known as a holobiont. (It is important to note that these microorganisms are not produced internally in the organism, but are instead acquired externally from the environment.) This idea, known as the hologenome theory of evolution, runs contrary to the traditional conception of evolution, which holds that individual organisms are subject to the forces of natural selection. Yet the new theory makes a lot of sense. All macrobial organisms establish symbiotic relationships with bacteria. Through direct physical contact and other more shocking means of transmission, microbes residing in the host organism are passed down from one generation to the next. Since the symbiosis between the macrobe and its microbiome is often critical for the host’s metabolism, immunity, and general health, it is not surprising that nature often selects for organisms that have evolved biological structures to house symbiotic bacteria. Thus, the interdependence of the host and its microorganisms produces a single hologenome (where “holo” is the Greek prefix for “whole”) out of their separate sets of genes.
Since the hologenome theory of holobionts is itself already quite controversial, it is even more contentious as to whether the theory extends to other kinds of synergistic, functionally interdependent relationships in nature. For instance, it’s quite clear that evolution acts on single bees, but is it possible that evolution can also account for the formation of complex societies in beehives? To offer some background, all honeybees live in communities where labor is divided among worker bees, which are exclusively female. Once they are past a particular age, many of these worker bees forage for either nectar or pollen. Furthermore, worker honeybees are “facultatively sterile”; that is to say, they do not lay eggs when a queen is present. Like most evolutionary biologists, Gro Amdam and her team at ASU sought to understand the social behavior of honeybees by exploring its emergence from their solitary ancestors. In particular, they hypothesized that the behavior was somehow linked to the reproductive states of these ancestors. Amdam discovered that pollen-foraging behavior in worker bees was regulated by a series of hormones and proteins that were produced during the reproductive phase of solitary bees, even though worker bees are sterile. During the evolution of social bees, these hormones became dissociated from the reproductive cycle and were repurposed for controlling division of labor. In other words, interactions between worker bees result in a pre-adaptation, which is a change, typically triggered by shifts in environmental context, in the function of a particular trait. Therefore, assembling larger, more complex, and more interdependent societies can alter the course of evolution, such that it selects for traits at the level of the colony rather than the individual bee.
Thus, it is no surprise that the superorganism, which is the individual organism formed by the functional interdependence of many smaller animals, has its own composite “sociogenome,” shaped by the phenotypes of each member within it. This sociogenome, akin to the hologenome of a holobiont, is a genetic network created through the interactions of previously solitary individuals. For example, the subgenual organs in bees respond to seismic vibrations in the local environment, thereby reacting to airborne transmissions of sound. The subgenual organs are not involved in pollen foraging among solitary bees, who instead rely on their own smell receptors in order to find food in the surrounding environment. However, social worker bees, in addition to using their olfactory senses to forage for pollen, have to communicate to each other about the level of pollen in the colony by performing complex dances, which are interpreted through the subgenual organs. As such, the social physiology of the beehive is founded upon the integration of genes that regulate two previously independent sensory processes: smell and sound. The functional interdependence of these interconnected genes enables the network of bees to make collective decisions about pollen foraging, as though they were a single individual.
As such, a superorganism will react to external stimuli in the same way that an individual organism might. Researchers at the University of Bristol recently subjected a colony of ants to a simulated predator attack. They found that removing ants from the outer edges of the colony caused the rest of the group to retreat to its center, much like someone whose finger touches a hot surface will instinctively withdraw his hand towards his body. However, when ants were taken away from the center of the colony, the entire group migrated quickly to a new location, just as someone will move his whole body if his torso is struck by a weapon. Because the colony will respond to damage differently depending on the location of its harm, it would appear that individual ants are aware of the shape and character of the larger superorganism that they participate in. Indeed, the researchers conclude that a multi-organismal nervous system arises from the interactions between the ants. The collective behaves like an individual because it is, in fact, an individual.
How far can the superorganism concept extend? In recent decades, more and more ecologists have begun to subscribe to a concept known as the Gaia hypothesis, which posits that the conditions for life on Earth are supported through a massive, highly complex network of synergistic interactions between organisms and their inanimate surroundings. The Earth, in other words, is a superorganism, one individual itself comprised of countless smaller superorganisms. What precisely could be motivating the creation of a superorganism at such a massive scale? Is that question even scientifically testable? In 2004, a meteorologist from the University of Maryland proposed that competing climate processes on Earth, coupled with the contributions that organisms make to the global carbon cycle, could give rise to a thermodynamic “Maximum Entropy Production” state, which then regulates the mean temperature of the planet and, more broadly, its overall “homeostatic state.” The Gaia hypothesis is still heavily contested in the scientific community, but it nonetheless appears that there is a tendency towards self-organization in both living systems and beyond – that there is a driving force in the universe that integrates discrete entities into functionally interdependent networks. Explaining this general propensity for self-organization through the laws of thermodynamics (as these physicists have done) will clarify why it is permissible according to the principles of science, but it does not shed insight on the One thing that it seems to be generating – the One thing without which nothing is, as the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides would say.
David Bohm, a renowned physicist from Princeton who was once an assistant professor to Einstein, sought to understand the One thing by approaching the universe in a radically different, ultra-holistic way: not as an aggregate of fundamental building blocks (i.e. particles), but instead as an “undivided wholeness,” a “dynamic wholeness-in-motion in which everything moves together in an interconnected process.” Bohm first conceived of the idea, which he termed holomovement, when he observed “spooky action at a distance,” in which the quantum states of two subatomic particles become inextricably interdependent upon each other. Any change that one particle experiences will affect the other one in precisely the same way, even if, theoretically, they are located at opposite ends of the universe. Bohm proposed that a deeper, hidden dimension of reality – an Implicate Order – accounts for the entanglement of these quantum particles. In the Implicate Order, everything is so profoundly interconnected that “the totality of existence is enfolded within each region of space,” so that each individual part contains information about the rest of the system. Bohm likened the Implicate Order to a hologram, in which each point is established in relation to the configuration of interference patterns in the overall film. Therefore, each part of the hologram stores information about the entire holographed scene. The notion of a single particle, according to Bohm, is merely an abstraction belonging to the “Explicate Order,” the universe that unfolds out of the Implicate Order and manifests itself to our sense perceptions. The electron is not actually an individual particle with an independent existence in space-time, but rather part of a massive ensemble of particles that is perpetually unfolding out of an ordered background and enfolding back into it. To rephrase Willy’s quotation of the Diamond Sutra, there is no electron, but there is.
To illustrate this process of constant enfolding-unfolding, Bohm asks that we imagine two cameras pointing at one fish tank from two separate angles, withe each of the cameras projecting onto two televisions. Naturally, the cameras will capture two different images of the fish, but we do not say that there are two separate fishes. Rather, there is a single fish that belongs to a three-dimensional reality, above the two-dimensional reality of the projected images. Bohm believes that spooky action occurs because each of the entangled particles in the pair is merely a projection of a higher-dimensional reality in which both of the particles are situated within a single, unified field. Due to the constraints of our ordinary sense-awareness, reality (as we know it) typically doesn’t break down if we treat the particles as independent entities. However, under exceptional circumstances, we begin to notice that the electrons no longer behave as separately existing individuals. Bohm points out that when temperature goes below a certain threshold, a collection of electrons will gain an emergent property of superconductivity, “in which electrical resistance vanishes [and] electric current can flow indefinitely.”
Bohm sought empirical validation for his metaphysical perspective through his own “pilot-wave” or “guiding-field” interpretation of quantum mechanics. According to Bohm, the positions of photons or electrons in a many-particle system are described according to a pilot wave function, such that the velocity of any one particle will depend on the state of every other one that can be described by the same wave function. Unlike the Copenhagen interpretation, which I discussed in a previous blogpost, Bohm’s hypothesis suggested that electrons do in fact have a definite position and that they pass through one slit, not both, in the double-slit experiment (see diagram below). However, the pilot wave, which is essentially an explicit manifestation of the Implicate Order out of which each electron emerges, interferes with itself to produce the pattern seen on the screen. Observing the two slits will collapse the pilot wave equation and reveal the position of the particle. Thus, the state of the quantum particle cannot be understood without reference to the pilot wave function, and consequently, the whole system in which it participates. While “Bohmian mechanics,” as it is called, received lots of criticism in the 20th century, it is gaining broader acceptance in the scientific community.
Fig 2. An explanation of the double-slit experiment and its two interpretations. Bohm’s is on the right. From Quanta Magazine.
More than two millennia ago, Parmenides famously held that there is no such thing as plurality or multiplicity, and that everything is, in fact, one thing. If Being itself were not one whole, he claimed, then there must be non-Being. However, what appears to be non-Being is in fact filled with Being. Indeed, if empty space didn’t exist, then we wouldn’t perceive it to begin with. However, because we can actually observe it, space, though seemingly empty, must present itself to us as something that exists (more on the physics of nothing in a later blogpost). Because non-Being is impossible, everything participates in this one unified field of Being.
However, it is a quality of most systems that their constituent elements are blind to the larger whole that they are forming. Your red blood cells are not cognizant of the overall body that they are helping to sustain, not only because they possess limited awareness, but also because their field of interaction is limited to the confines of the blood vessel. You are like the cell. Because you cannot see outside the boundaries of your own perception, you cannot come to grasp the One thing, the totality of existence, in which you belong (except perhaps through mystical experience of the divine, but that’s also a subject for another time).
Because the universe is not static but rather perpetually changing, it is in the process of becoming something. Yet that “something” cannot be anything other than the universe itself, since otherwise there would be something besides the totality of existence, which is incoherent. So the entire universe is engaged in the act of becoming itself, much like I argued in another blogpost that reality is an awareness becoming aware of itself. Therefore, since the universe is One whole, all the individual parts within it are slowly merging into one unity. The thermodynamically-driven tendency for systems, particularly living systems, to organize themselves into functionally interdependent societies is the primary manifestation of this gradual integration. The teleological unfolding of the Explicate universe, if such a phenomenon could be said to exist, is greater and greater interconnectedness until finally, there are no things or people but…