We often think of ourselves as one being, one human, a single individual that was born, who lives their life, and dies. But is that the case? Or is there more to it?
The human body consists of roughly 30 trillion cells, broken down in these numbers:
- 24.9 trillion red blood cells
- 1.4 trillion platelets
- 3.3 trillion other cells
- a few million fat cells (adipocytes)
- a few million muscle cells
So where do the other roughly 40 trillion organisms come from? These are found in the microbiota, or mostly the bacteria that inhabit our gut and other areas of our body. And these numbers fluctuate massively; as one recent study showed, one defecation can “flip the ratio to favor human cells over bacteria.”
So Walt Whitman’s observation that “I am large, I contain multitudes,” may be more true than we’ve thought.
Where did all these organisms come from, all these cells and microorganisms?
Origins of multicellular life
The first signs of life seem to have emerged on Earth some 4.1-4.3 billion years ago. Some of the very first organisms which we recognize are unicellular, or a single cell. These protocells emerged around 3.8-4 billion years ago. These single-celled organisms dominated life on Earth for quite some time, until multicellular life emerged around 3-3.5 billion years ago, or organisms which consist of more than one cell. How did this happen? How did life go from unicellular to multicellular?
There are several theories about how unicellular life transitioned to be multicellular, and it is thought that this transition happened independently dozens of times. One theory is that single cells of different species grouped together to cooperate in a symbiotic way. Over time they became so dependent on one another that they could not survive without the other, and merged their genomes into a single multicellular organism. Another theory is that a single celled organism had a division of its nucleus, developing multiple nuclei within it, with membranes around each nucleus, thus creating an organism with multiple cells within it. Yet another theory suggests the cooperation of many organisms of the same species. These may have grouped together having failed to separate after cellular division, thus forming a single organism of identical cells. Later these cells may have begun to differentiate into specialized functions (tissues). It seems that this last theory may be the most popular.
There may have been multiple ways it happened along the way. Most multicellular life today which has cells with nuclei (such as humans) also contain mitochondria, which is an organelle in the cell that is considered the “powerhouse” of the cell, supplying cellular energy. It is thought that these mitochondria may have originated as separate unicellular organisms that did not have a nucleus (like bacteria), but merged together with other unicellular life that contained a nucleus, perhaps by the latter “eating” the former (endocytosis). This might be an example of two different species of organisms grouping together in a symbiotic relationship which became permanent (endosymbiosis). It is noteworthy that mitochondria today contains their own set of DNA separate from that contained in the cell’s nucleus, lending support to this theory. This symbiotic relationship between these two species of life may have developed about 1.7-2 billion years ago.
Being multicellular might have been a competitive advantage to these early multicellular organisms, over simply larger single cells. There are size limits to individual cells, because of the difficulty of absorbing the necessary nutrients to sustain itself and transporting them around the cell. They may also continue to live as the larger organism, even if individual cells die out and are replaced. The differentiation of cells into particular functions may have also been an advantage, allowing for increased complexity to survive in different environments.
Sexual reproduction emerged around 1.2 billion years ago in multicellular life with cellular nuclei (eukaryotes). These organisms may have needed a better way of replicating DNA and repairing damaged DNA. With only one set of DNA, if that DNA got damaged there was no way of repairing it. With two sets of DNA an organism would be able to repair one of the sets by copying the other. As noted on Wikipedia, “The most primitive form of sex may have been one organism with damaged DNA replicating an undamaged strand from a similar organism in order to repair itself.” Sex may have also been a means of gaining the beneficial effects of genetic variation through recombination.
The first land plants evolved from green algae approximately 850 million to 1 billion years ago. The first animals emerged around 610 million years ago. About 541 million years ago was the Cambrian explosion, lasting for 20-25 million years, when there was a period of radical diversification in animal species. In the Cambrian period, most of the variety of life we see today originated. The first vertebrates appeared around 525 million years ago. The first dinosaurs emerged around 243-233 million years ago, and the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct about 66 million years ago when a massive comet or asteroid struck Earth, killing 75% of all species on Earth. This opened the way for mammals to grow in size and diversify. The first upright-walking apes emerged about 6 million years ago, which led to anatomically modern humans some 200,000 years ago.
The other 40 trillion microbiota that inhabit our bodies (mostly our gut), are another example of a symbiotic or mutualistic relationship of one species living in relationship to another, to the benefit of both. In an endosymbiotic relationship one species lives within the other, as with the bacteria that live in our gut. Many of these are beneficial to humans, and we could not live without them. They actually help digest our food, and produce necessary vitamins and hormones. A dysfunctional gut microbiota leads to many inflammatory and autoimmune problems in humans.
So what are we? In part, we are a highly complex and diversified symbiotic colony of trillions of eukaryotic organisms (and perhaps prokaryotic organisms within them), which came together over billions of years of evolution and symbiosis, with another large colony of trillions of prokaryotic bacteria and other microorganisms in a colony which function in mutualistic relationship and benefit the well-being of the whole human being.
We are large. We contain multitudes.
When things go wrong
Imagine what might happen if individual cells or groups of cells decided to not cooperate in a symbiotic relationship with the rest of the body, for the well-being of the whole. What if the eye suddenly decided it did not need the hand. Would that work? Could the eye work wholly independently of the hand, or does the eye need the hand? If the eye wants to survive, it seems it needs the abilities of the hand (or a hand), otherwise how would the body be fed (including the eye tissue).
What if the head suddenly said that it didn’t need the foot? Could the head operate completely independently and separately from the foot? Maybe, but the head would have more difficulty moving around from place to place without a foot (or a foot of some kind).
What if particular body parts decided that they wanted to be the whole, that the whole body could be eye tissue. Would that work? Or how about if the ear chose to become the whole of the body, so that the whole body was ear tissue. Could the body function as wholly ear tissue? What about all the other various specializations of the body? They would all disappear, and the body would soon die, just being one specialization and not being able to sense or act in the environment. But the body is not just one specialization, one form of tissue, but many, many parts, which act in concert and symbiosis with one another to form one single body, one unified being, a human being.
What if parts of the body decided that because they were not other parts of the body that they didn’t belong to the body? What if the foot said that because it was not a hand, it didn’t belong to the body? That, of course, would be nonsense. The foot is still a critical part of the body. Or if the ear said that because it was not an eye, that it didn’t belong? Again, that doesn’t make any sense. Each part of the body performs a vital, critical, specialized function within the body, and the body needs them all working in cooperation for the good of the whole. (See Paul’s discussion of the “Body of Christ” in 1 Corinthians 12.)
What happens if parts of the body do run amuck, and decide to not be unified with the rest of the body? This might cause a number of problems, diseases, and conditions in the body, such as auto-immune diseases and paralysis. What if a particular body tissue decides that it wants to selfishly become the whole of the body, or simply loses sight of or connection with the whole? This might be what we call “cancer.” These are cells that do not work within the normal parameters of the body’s functioning. They may decide to grow without limits. It has been thought that cancer may be “a loss of multicellularity,” perhaps meaning that the cells stop being cooperative within the organism as a whole, stop being differentiated/specialized, and seek their own ends, multiplying themselves ad infinitum. They may even be unwilling to die when their time is appropriate (apoptosis) to be replaced by new cells, and simply continue to live and grow forever. That is often not good for the body as a whole, and often causes the death of the body.
One of the remarkable things about the development of life is its becoming conscious of its environment, its surroundings, the ability to detect and respond to external stimuli. At first the senses may have started as cells that could sense particular qualities or conditions about the environment. Some cells may have developed the ability to sense certain wavelengths of photons striking them, and so evolved into photoreceptors, and eventually into eyes. Others could perhaps sense pressure waves (vibration) in the water or air, and so developed into mechanoreceptors, and eventually into ears and sense of touch. Others could yet detect and bind to certain molecules in its surroundings, and became taste buds and olfactory receptors, for eventually taste and smell. Perhaps eventually those cells developed the ability to relay information about those conditions to other cells, forming primitive nervous systems.
At some point it may have been useful for some cells within the organism to specialize to organize, correlate, regulate, and coordinate the signals of these different senses with one another, and with the rest of the organism, to be the “command center,” and “communication center.” These cells may have evolved into brains.
So what is consciousness? It seems to be that ability that has arisen within organisms to be aware of and respond to stimuli in their environment, and to direct the functioning of their bodies, whether unicellular or multicellular, in particular ways as a result. Much of our consciousness is beneath the level of our awareness, is subconscious or unconscious, and is at work without us knowing about it at all. But there is a portion of consciousness that we are aware of, the part of consciousness that seems to be the head knower, the executive, the part that feels like it is something.
This awareness that emerges is unified such that it considers itself one being, one organism, one person. It is perhaps the result of many billions of separate subconscious processes that accumulate deeper within the mind, and which combine as they rise up to the surface of conscious awareness, resulting in particular thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions. Our awareness considers these as unified, or happening to our organism as a whole. If our foot gets burned, we feel that “I” have been burned, or “my” foot has been burned, even though it is it only the cells on the foot that have encountered the heat. The rest of the body may be fine, and is unharmed.
Evolution seems to have developed multicellular organisms in such a way that tries to maintain the symbiosis or mutualistic relationship between all the bodies’ many different cells, tissues, parts, organs, and the nervous system including the brain seems to have a primary role in that unification and maintenance of the whole. That which is bad for some cells is bad for the organism as a whole. The organism as a whole loses some of the benefits that the specialization of those particular cells offers it, which is not good for survival or reproduction. On the other hand, that which is good for some cells may be good for the organism as a whole. The whole organism benefits if the taste bud cells bind to the glucose molecules in carbohydrates or sugars, because that is where all the cells in the body derive their energy. Energy is good for survival and reproduction. The nervous system, and particularly the brain, takes special note of what is particularly bad or good, and coordinates the various parts of the body to respond accordingly, avoiding the bad and seeking the good.
And so our conscious awareness emerges as a kind of unified experiencer for the whole body, the whole colony of life, all ~70 trillion organisms. The “I” or personal ego-self in consciousness notes when things are working well for the body, in which case it feels good, and it notes when things are not working out well for the body, in which case it doesn’t feel good. All its feelings, thoughts, sensations, and perceptions seem to be associated with one of these two directions, or are neutral. If there is an imbalance, if the body needs more good, to help the body survive or reproduce, then this “I” may seek more good, or at least it notices that the body is seeking more good. Whether or not that aware “I” actively causes the seeking, or just passively notices the body seeking, is a question about free will that is a separate discussion in itself.
What happens when there are no feelings, thoughts, sensations, and perceptions that generate that sense of “I” or ego-self in awareness? What happens when they become quiet, either through sensory deprivation, semantic satiation, prolonged directed focus on a single thing, or through chemical changes which directly affect the neuronal firing of the brain (either endogenous or exogenous)? What happens when the parts of the brain that help generate that aware “I” in consciousness become dormant, stop firing, are relaxed, or stop working temporarily? Then perhaps there is no “I” in consciousness.
Perhaps then the organism experiences no boundary to itself, no limits, no distinct or differentiated parts (those specialized cells or body parts), but a wholeness and oneness of being that transcends the body itself. Perhaps the organism experiences experience, or becomes aware of awareness. Perhaps consciousness comes to know consciousness, or being of being. And this seems to encompass everything that is. There is no time there, or perhaps all time. There is no space either, or perhaps all space. There is no thing there, or perhaps all things. The organism is no longer aware of stimuli that is affecting the colony of the body’s trillions of organisms in symbiosis, but rather it is simply aware. It is awareness itself, or perhaps Life and Being itself. This simple awareness just is, and that is all there is. The entirety of everything consists of this most basic and simple and pure and pristine and whole and complete and free and still isness, and there is simply nothing else. It is, and it knows it is, and that is all there is, and always is. Its Self.
This is not the “self” of the body, or mind, because its awareness of those things has subsided. Consciousness is no longer aware of any “objects” outside itself, in a subject-object relationship. But rather it is the Self of Being itself, of Life itself, of Consciousness itself, it is simply aware of being aware, and this is identical wherever it is experienced. It is perhaps the “I am that I am” that Moses encountered in Exodus 3:14, the “God” that many throughout history have encountered, that most basic and essential foundation of life and being, which is common to all life and anything that has being in the cosmos, including the cosmos itself, and maybe even prior to being, that which is the source of being, the source of all “objects” in consciousness and creation. Maybe Descartes was wrong when he said “I think, therefore I am.” Maybe “I am because I am” is prior to thinking, more primary, primal beingness. Awareness seems to come before any conscious doubting of awareness. Being conscious of a thought such as doubt seems to be the beginning of the “self” or ego.
The Human Mirrors Society and the Cosmos
This basic makeup of the human individual I think is also representative of how separate individuals come together to create that society. The whole pattern is repeated at the level of the society. Separate humans join forces with one another in symbiotic relationship, becoming one “body,” and differentiate or specialize according to what they are each good at, or what groups of people are good at in organizations or companies, and they do this for the benefit of the whole society. What is good for one part of society is good for the whole. What is bad for one part is bad for the whole. It is advantageous for the whole “body” that the individuals do this, that they form communities and work together for the benefit of all, for the “body’s” survival and reproduction. The individuals may live longer, and have better lives, because the society works together to solve its problems. Since people can specialize into particular occupations, no one has to learn how to do everything, but they can trade among themselves, cooperate, exchange, give to one another, do things for each other that they might not be good at themselves, and greater complexity emerges in the societal “body.” Everyone is able to get what they need because the society as a whole provides it through this emergent complexity.
In addition to companies and organizations of all kinds, governments may also be like the nervous system of this “body,” the “brain,” coordinating, correlating, organizing, and being a central authority for the interaction of the many different parts, and to ensure that the different parts work well together. When it is working well, government may act as the emergent conscious awareness of a democratic society, the many millions or billions of people within it accumulating their messages and voices, and combining them together, until they rise to the level of our governmental representatives, the executives, who are able to become aware of these issues on a holistic basis. Thus the society begins to feel like it is something together, as one: one neighborhood, one city, one state, one country, or one world. Different levels of government try to keep a good symbiosis of all parts of their society, so that the whole benefits, that no part is abandoned. What is good for parts of the society ends up being good for the whole, and what is bad for parts is bad for the whole, because of the deep interconnectivity of the whole.
What happens when there is no central “brain” to a society, no awareness in central organizing and administrative structures such as governments? Well, in our current world, it seems there is chaos and anarchy. The different parts of the whole stop working together. They stop communicating, perhaps thinking they are their own separate selves again, and they can take care of themselves, and do what they want. But what if the lack of awareness in a central authority meant that the separate parts could act autonomously for the good of the whole. What if the separate parts had the kind of egoless awareness that an organism may experience when their “I” falls away from consciousness, thus perceiving the oneness of the whole. I wonder if then the parts would naturally cooperate and act in each others’ best interests spontaneously, without necessarily a central authority to manage them and administrate their welfare. Perhaps the separate parts would know themselves as reflections of the whole. Perhaps they would all know, inherently, what is best for the society, and through love and compassion would naturally act in ways that benefited the society as a whole.
This might be more along the lines of a free market economy, but it seems it takes a lot of individual awareness and consciousness of the whole for that to work, otherwise the individual parts might act selfishly and the whole breaks down. It seems that even in a free market economy that central authorities or organizing principles of some kind might be necessary, unless the whole itself can trust itself through decentralized authority structures, like blockchain technology, where each part or node becomes a check on the whole. If each individual part/node knew themselves to be a reflection of the whole, that may be such a check.
The cosmos itself might also be such a “body,” made up of many billions and trillions of parts which symbiotically work together for the benefit of the whole One. The parts may be that One themselves, each a reflection of the whole of the One within themselves in a kind of holographic or fractal way, each part reflecting the whole. And when any part loses consciousness of its particular “I,” or transcends its “I,” it may become vividly aware of the unity of the whole, the One, the Cosmos, God, Reality, Truth, Being.
The Encyclopedia Britannica notes this about Leonardo da Vinci’s work of Virtuvian Man (shown at the top of this post):
Leonardo envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings and Vitruvian Man as a cosmografia del minor mondo (cosmography of the microcosm). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy for the workings of the universe.
And he may be right.
6 thoughts on “You are a Colony of 70 Trillion Organisms”
Wow, Bryce – You’ve outdone yourself. I (whoever and whatever I am) will probably respond in several comments. I’ll start with my skin cell theory of existence. I am to the whole as a skin cell is to me. Of course, the magnitudes here are vastly different, but you get the idea. There are lots of skin cells that are in me. They live for a couple weeks and then get replaced, while “I” carry on. Imagine if a skin cell was sentient and had a “small self” – wanting to do a good job as a skin cell, maybe be bigger than a cell next door, or more tan than another, maybe sharing a cute freckle with another. All good stuff in a relative kind of way. I need my skin cells to be doing their jobs during their short two week lifespan. Imagine now if that skin cell could develop a holistic consciousness. It could feel this rhythmic pulsing – it doesn’t know or understand the heart and circulatory system, but it feels that pulsing. It also feels these chemical surges that come through – it doesn’t know about endocrinology but it feels the impact of the chemicals that flow through it. It can also feel these electrical zaps that are happening. It doesn’t understand the brain or the nervous system but it feels these electrical charges. There is this trinity that it can directly experience and maybe get the feeling that it is part of something really big and whole – and it can experience its “big self”. Wouldn’t that be the ideal to be able to achieve during its brief two week earth walk? Wouldn’t it want to be a good skin cell AND know itself as part of a great mystery? That’s the way I think it is for me.
Beautiful thoughts David! It’s amazing to think about! We are both a small self and a Whole Self, both a skin cell and a Body of Humanity, even a Cosmic Body. Like the skin cell developing holistic consciousness of the human body, I think it is possible for us to become consciousness of our Cosmic Self, and that seems to be the function of mysticism, to encounter that greater Whole that we are, our greatest Identity, and then bring that realization back to our small neck of the woods to be a good human being, and act for the well-being of the Whole.
I’ve wondered recently about the tens of millions of cells that naturally die every minute in our body (50-70 billion/day), and are replaced by newborn cells. Should we feel bad for these cells? Is it a tragedy of epic proportions that so many of these “organisms” are dying in our bodies. Or do they die so that we can live? Do we likewise die so that the greater Self can live?
• Bryce – I mentioned that I would remark in segments, and your reply lets me move on to my next comment, in the human cell metaphor that I am referencing. I am responding to your comment, “That which is bad for some cells is bad for the organism as a whole.” That fits within the context of your exposition. It reminds me to want to share my ruminations on fate. Many of us encounter the question about “why do bad things happen to good people”. I have pondered this in the context of this human skin cell metaphor. If I go off for a hike to a mountain top, and am nourished by the view at the top, that experience which is definitely good for me as a whole, may result in a blister on my heel. Those skin cells die in a fiery, painful way. Clearly a tragedy in their experience, but resulting from some activity happily taken on by my total self. Of course, a nice glass of wine is a treat, and often recommended as part of an overall healthy diet, but some brain cells get sacrificed in the process. There are lots of ways that cells get sacrificed for the maintenance of the whole. Blood cells are a prime example. When I floss, if I get any bleeding, its curtains for those red blood cells. White blood cells are the warriors of our immune system, and are constantly being sacrificed to save me from infections. We could launch into consideration of surgeries and of modern chemotherapies – poisons intended to eradicate disease. Clearly there are lots of ways that pain and destruction happen at one level while the overall organism is being supported. At the cell level, this just feels like a horrible fate. I have no sure knowledge of larger purposes and meaning in creation – that’s why I hold it as mystery. I can be comfortable that bad things that do happen may be in the context of some overall functioning that is good at a higher level. I can’t know that, but I can understand it as a possibility, and I am comfortable living with the “why” of it all, without despair or loss of a sense of being held in a larger whole, while also holding the pain in my heart where it is very real and often enough destructive at the relative level. I tend not to be a fan of the saying that “that which does not kill me makes me stronger”. Sometimes that is true, but often such things can leave beings horribly wounded and constricted for their life walk. We can just try to open our minds and hearts to hold these injuries as part of our overall experience and feel what at least feels like goodness in the overall experience –“Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life” (UU first source statement).
Thank you, David. Interesting things to think about.
I will leave my final comment on the subject. We are a colony of 70 trillion organisms. Most of those organisms have very short lives – skin cells, for example, live for a couple weeks. The number of organisms that comprise “us” over the course of an 80 year life assuming a two week average life might be something like 150,000 trillion, whatever that number is. A whole bunch of organisms. So what dies when we die? Very few of the participating organisms are on hand on the day we draw our last breath – they have come and gone. Thoughts like this leave me with no concept of what it would mean to have some kind of life after death. I doubt that there is a heaven for skin cells, or for organs if we have the misfortune to have any removed through surgery. I’m content to observe a universe of energy and information that is constantly flowing, forming, and reforming.
Well said. We seem to be much more of a process, a pattern, an emerging, than any kind of static being. It’s unlikely that any atom that exists in our body when we are born continues to exist in it when we are 80 years old. It seems everything cycles and recycles through.
My current view of “life after death” is that it has not much to do with this particular body-mind, and far more to do with the Body of Humanity, or the Cosmic Body. That’s the one that keeps living, and I think the mystical realization of this Cosmic Body of which we are a part may be what has traditionally been called “resurrection” or “eternal life.”