At one of the seminars at the University of Melbourne students were discussing prostitution (which is legal in Melbourne), I was wondering why we find certain activities distasteful: Defecating, getting drunk, binge eating, spitting, drooling, burping, public sex, masturbation, dying, giving birth, nursing a baby, crying, farting, being needy…and a pattern started to emerge. These behaviors are natural—even mechanical—aspect of our biological being, and the only reason that we find these activities distasteful is because there must be an imbedded ideal standard that we are aspiring to.
In our mind we have a model of the world. The sole purpose of having such a complex brain is to represent the world in its entirety as far as it affects us. Every day we adjust this model to make it closer to reality. An unachievable objective since reality is ephemeral, but we make reality conform to patterns that help us think that we can predict it. Both our dreams and our waking emotions signal a need to modify and adjust this view of the world. And this cognitive representation remains mostly unconscious. Our brain interacts unconsciously most of the time and only gives us consciousness when it requires our full attention in order to address some complex event. This is the internal world that is driving us to think like gods. This unconscious model of the world furnishes us with a feeling of mastery and control because we can predict and affect change. But this feeling of mastery is an illusion and it is this illusion that is growing.
Rousseau's ‘Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium” If gods were people, they would govern themselves democratically. In our cognitive model the world is predictable and just (Lerner, 1980). Despite an onslaught of daily news informing us otherwise, we still believe in a just world. We continue to be surprised by disasters or catastrophes thinking that they are exceptions. They are not. They are exceptions only in our model of the world—the one that we cultivate in our head, the virtual box—because in our mind everything is in harmony, everything is balanced, and just. We continue to aspire to a world where we can "cure" death, "regain" youth, "fight" terrorism, "save" humanity...these are illogical and delusional aims only if you are NOT a god. If we aspire to behave like—or think that we are—gods, then these aspirations are attainable. These aspirations confer a delusional sense of control over our world.
The Emergence of Individuality
The idea that we are somewhat godlike requires that we have a belief that we are unique individuals. Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell exploration of the narcissistic epidemic (Twenge & Campbell, 2009) document an alarming rise of narcissism at every level of our society. With the pampering of social media promoting a world filled with egos, our individualistic selves are thriving. We only have to look at the world economy where such individualistic arrogance is promoted by banks, despite resulting in risky, unrealistic investments. A financial system that enshrines the motto that it is "too big to fail". Godlike structures which are resilient to reality and to change, that rest above the law and it seems above basic economics. And such arrogance comes across from individuals running these structures. Among the oligarch—the very rich—there has always been godlike arrogance. Traditionally oligarch were philanthropic, they wanted to change the world for the better. But it is their view of “better” that is creating inequity. Not only are we turning into a world—not just a society—run by oligarchs, but we are seeing these inequities transferred across generations. The oligarchs have discovered immortality. They are transferring their wealth down successive generations. Their individualism will live into eternity through the management of their wealth. These are not delusions of grandeur, since these individuals have the power to affect great social changes. And oligarchs have always been with us, although perhaps not to such as extent as today. What is uniquely transformative is the emerging belief that anyone can have this power. This form of individualism has infected the general public. And it is this belief—that anyone can become an oligarch—that allows us to sell short our collective futures.
Individualism should not be confused with individuality. Individuality is a psychological concept of self that is separate and distinct from others. Individualism is a historical interpretation of self as the center of all interest and a belief that individual achievement rather than community or societal progress is the ultimate development. The conviction that the moral and intellectual imperative resides with the individual and not the community, something that is now shared with corporations (Lukes 1990). Individualism is a deformity of individuality. There is a certain form, a shape that individuality takes that fits in within society. But through individualism, this shape become malformed and no longer fits within the bigger puzzle of society. It stands out as separate and, in some cases, an antithesis to the social setting it resides in. Individualism is predicated on the expectations that wellbeing and life satisfaction are achieved only through one’s personal goals rather than through community achievements (Diener & Diener 1995). An offshoot of this is that we base our predictions—judgment, reasoning and causal inference—based on the person (or people) rather than the situation or social context (Morris & Peng, 1994). We judge others, and not the context that we find them in. Terrorists are deranged people rather than sane people in deranged contexts. We punish people for being born into poverty. Our godlike behavior elevates control of behavior to internal thought rather than social contexts.
There is evidence that in pre-history—before written records—humans were aware of their individuality but without individualism. Historically our personality was shared with the community that we lived in. Bell provides numerous examples where “there is wide agreement among anthropologists, evolutionists and cognitive specialists that early humans had little or no awareness of themselves as independent personalities, but instead felt themselves to be parts of the group (collective) to which they belonged.” (Bell, 2010) Remnants of this common sharing is still seen in marriage rituals were the marriage is seen as uniting two families together, in as much as a coupling of two individuals.
The growth of individualism has been identified in psychiatry through the work on personality. Personality is a hypothetical entity that cannot be observed or studied other than when studied within interpersonal situations. There is no “I” in personality unless there is an interaction with others. The “I” without a social interpersonal context does not exist. In Social Identity Theory 'individuals define themselves in terms of their social group memberships and that group-defined self-perception produces psychologically distinctive effects in social behaviour' (Turner, 1982). This socialization is what makes us distinct. As early as the 1950s, Harry Sullivan in “The Illusion of Individuality” argued that: “…human beings are human animals that have been filled with culture—socialized…” (p. 323) His personality theory is based on relationships rather than internal psychodynamics (such as with the theory proposed by Sigmund Freud). Culture is how we define ourselves as individuals—different cultures promote different versions of individuality—and this is achieved not by defining an individual but by defining an “ideal” individual through a broad acceptance of individualism. Individualism—an emphasis on personal aspects such as personal goals, personal uniqueness and personal control while marginalizing social aspects such as community, family and civics. The only way that individualism can grow is by developing these unique qualities for the self through abstract traits (Baumeiser, 1998). There are no examples in reality that reflect individualism—we have to create them ourselves through our construction of gods. It is this abstract nature of individualism through our construction of gods which is driving the narcissism epidemic. But these are not just abstract ideas, but ideas that have been embedded in our way of thinking.
There is no clear historical demarcation of when individualism gained a significant footing in our personality. The historians Jacob Burckhardt and Jules Michelet discuss how the growth of individualism can be seen around the dawn of the Renaissance period (Skidmore, 1996). And we can see how social context promotes individualism. But the first endorsement that individualism is a positive attribute was by Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’s first law of nature states that man has the right to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, even if it means harming others. The only compromise is through Hobbe’s second law of nature, which states that in a consensus people can give up some rights (of their individualism) to live peacefully in a society, without conflict. Ayn Ryand takes this form of narcissism further with her radical and dysfunctional interpretation that individuals should not compromise. Individualism is enshrined as an ideal despite the harm to society and to the community. The individual trumps all other causes. Both individuality and the malformed extreme that we see through individualism are both social constructions. They are both an illusion since they exist relative to their social context. The argument against this self-centered growth towards individuality comes from a very unique place: Biology.
Against Individuality : Superorganisms
We talk about biological determinism as a negative philosophy whereby biology undermines any other influence especially in how we behave. But biologist themselves are eroding this biological imperative by conducting some amazing science. It was the sociologist Emil Durkheim who proposed that humans are “homo duplex”, leading double existences. According to Durkheim, one existence is rooted in biology and one in a social world. This interpretation holds amazing foresight for the time. This is an important distinction because while our social self (morally, intellectually, spiritually superior) is moving towards a more narcissistic form of individualism, the biology is moving in the opposite direction and showing how biologically diffuse we all are.
We are finding that the more we look at our body the more we see that we are made up of collective external organisms. Our bodies and our brain are not an exclusive entity—we have parts of other organisms and other people within us. In addition to genes that we inherit (in most cases, but not always) from both our parents, there are viruses, bacteria and potentially, other human cells within our body. Even our genes and brain are not deterministic and are influenced by external events.
Alien Cells in our Body
With 37 trillion cells in our body, Berg (1996) estimates that there are 10 times more bacterial cells in your body than human cells. Although bacteria is smaller and lighter than human cells—weighing 1-3% of our body weight—the 500-1,000 species of bacteria that inhabit our body have evolved with us for millions of years. Such mutual evolution is found in our mitochondria "the powerhouse of the cell" because they generate most of the cell's supply of chemical energy. In addition they are used for signaling, cellular differentiation, and cell death, as well as maintaining control of the cell cycle and cell growth. The presence of mitochondria in our cells varies with liver cells having more than 2000 mitochondria. Without mitochondria we will not survive since they are necessary to generate energy needed for the cell to function. It is humbling to learn that such an integrate part of our existence, these cells have their own genetic code and replicate independent of the rest of our cells. The reason for this is because mitochondria are a form of bacteria that were absorbed into our cells and now forms a symbiotic relationship with human cells—an endosymbiotic relationships in our body. However, in some cases the bacteria stay as independent contractors.
As independent contractors bacteria reside all over our body—inside and out—but bacteria has a special place in our human gut. Here in the dark recesses of our plumbing reside trillions of microorganisms engaged in fermenting, killing off other harmful bacteria and viruses, enhancing our immune system and producing vitamins and hormones. This bacterial activity is so necessary to the body that their outcome function as an independent organ—a virtual "forgotten" organ. Gut bacteria help extract energy and nutrients from our food. This sharing of benefits shows in experiments where bacteria-free rodents have to consume nearly a third more calories than normal rodents to maintain their body weight. Such symbiotic relationship has direct implications for older adults.
In 2012 Marcus Claesson and Ian Jeffery from University College Cork in Ireland and their colleagues found that institutionalized older adults have a different bacteria in their gut than community older adults and younger people. And they related this change—caused by a restricted diet—to becoming weaker physically and increase mortality. That an alien microorganism can have such dramatic life enhancing properties is startling. But this revelation was overshadowed in December 2014 when Martin Blaser from New York University and Glenn Webb from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, tried to explain how bacteria directly kill older adults. They argue that modern medical problems, such as inflammation-induced early cancer, resistance to infectious diseases and degenerative diseases are in response to bacterial change, as we get older. Bacteria that live with us have learned to kill us off in old age. Using mathematical models the authors show that bacteria evolved because they contributed to the stability of early human populations: an evolutionary process that enhanced the survivability of younger adults while increasing vulnerability of older adults. In our modern world such bacteria's legacy is now a burden on human longevity. But bacteria is not just a passive guest. Sometimes bacteria can call for delivery.
Gut microbes can produce neurotransmitters that alter your mood and even may control your appetite. Causing you to crave food bacteria enjoys but which might be detrimental to your overall health. Such risky behaviors, in some cases, causes an earlier death. An infection of a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, for example makes rats attracted to cats. Since the bacteria can reproduce only in cats (their vector) they make the rats lethargic around cats improving the chances of the rat being caught and improving the bacteria’s chances of infecting the cat and reproducing. In humans the same microbe increases the chance they will suffer from schizophrenia or suicidal depression.
Bacteria is not the only alien organism in our bodies. While we are being incubated, in the fetus, cells pass between twins or triplets and sometimes from previous siblings that occupied the womb. Around 8% of non-identical twins and 21% of triplets, for example, have not one, but two blood groups: one produced by their own cells, and one absorbed from their twin. There are even examples (anecdotal ABC News, 2014) where mothers passed on her twin sister’s genes, and not her own, to her children. Her eggs carried different genes from the rest of the body.
Alternatively, cells from an older sibling might stay around the mother’s body, only to find their way into your body after you are conceived. Lee Nelson from the University of Washington is examining whether cells from the mother herself may be implanted in the baby’s brain and the other way round where a baby’s genetic material finds itself in the mother’s brain. Nelson took slices of women’s brain tissue and screened their genome for signs of the Y-chromosome. Around 63% of mothers had Y-chromosome male cells in multiple brain regions. The authors cite a correlational observation that shows that these alien cells seemed to decrease the chances that the mother would subsequently develop Alzheimer’s--though exactly why remains a mystery.
Our body is home to a universe of external components. Not only is our body permeable to outside organisms, our brain is similarly influenced by external events, both in terms of how it functions and in terms of how it behaves.
We have specialized areas in our brain that “mirror” our environment. In the 1980s, the Italian Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma, first observed mirror neurons in monkeys. Although mirror neurons exist in most animals, in humans they have been observed in multiple areas of the brain, with as many as 10 percent of neural cells devoted to mirroring. A mirror neuron fires both when a person acts and also while observing the same action performed by another person. Such mirror neurons respond directly to what is observed outside. Our brain responds and mimics the activation of another person’s behavior and activity. Oberman & Ramachandran (2009) believe that the existence of mirror neurons explain the development of self-awareness and reflection because humans can have “meta-representations of our own earlier brain processes” (Ramachandran, 2009). The individual is looking more diffuse and more dependent on its immediate environment. Even our genetic material is now more likely to be influenced by our environment that we had previously thought.
Living in poor and dangerous neighborhoods has a direct effect on our hormones and stress chemicals—such as interleukin 6, acting as both a pro-inflammatory cytokine and an anti-inflammatory myokine that indicates body stress. A stressful environment—such as poor neighborhood—results in negative changes in the chemical composition of older adults, regardless of other factors. And these chemicals initiate changes in the body that are longer lasting because they switch on and off the expression of some genes. These epi-genes (above genes) can be switched on and off in order to help establishing and maintain a consistent optimum level of chemical balance within the body. Environmental factors such as mercury in water, second-hand smoke, diet including foliate, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, air pollutants, industrial chemicals, heavy metals, hormones in water, nutrition, and behavior have been shown to affect epi-genetics. Furthermore, epi-genetic changes are associated with specific outcomes such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, infertility, respiratory diseases, allergies, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Our body changes our epi-genes—establishing an optimum level of chemical balance in response to our environment that can then influence our overall health.
This accumulating evidence suggests that the body is a meeting place of interaction, a venue with the outside world—the geography, the community and significant others. Accepting that there is not just a "me" inside us but also a "we" then there is a more concise understanding how the environment, community, family and friends can determine our behavior and outcomes. My individuality is no longer solely about me but about my upbringing, my community and the people around me. Eroding the exclusivity of the individual exposes the extreme deception of elevating individualism as an ideal state.
In reaction to the rise of individualism has been the concept of monasticism—living in a closed community with people that we share similar beliefs. Such an experiment was initially started by Epicurus and later evolved to the monastic life we see represented today in both religious communities such as among monks and nuns but also in social groups such as kibbutz, some “houses” in universities and the largest monastic living, prisons. Whereas society is moving towards a generation of younger adults believing that individualism will bring them happiness at the same time we are seeing groups of people being treated less than human. Hobbes’s first law of nature that man has the right to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, might not involve a compromise if only another group of people give up their rights. While the winning group are thinking like gods, another group are made to take responsibility for all the negative events that happen.
Hofstede (2001) observed that poorer countries were more likely to be collectivistic whereas wealthy countries were individualistic in nature. Dimensions of individualism and collectivism seem to be affected by economic factors such as wealth or poverty. Not only are there rich and poor countries/ individualist vs collectivism, but each society is becoming more divided. There are people behaving like gods and there are people treated less than humans. This is what the Roman historian Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus, 86–35bc) identified when he said that: "We have public poverty and private opulence". We have yet again reached this time in history where a group of people is in poverty and a smaller group is in private opulence, behaving and thinking that they are gods.
Emil Durkheim argued that there will be a conflict between the biological and the social aspect of the homo duplex but he could not have predicted that it was the biology that made us more collective. There might be a separation of homo duplex, where one group becomes more godlike and another falls from heaven. There must be a story there somewhere.
ABC NEWS (2014). She’s her own Twin. Accessed 10/12/2015
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© USA Copyrighted 2014 Mario D. Garrett