Tag Archives: biology

Cutting Up an Ox


Ben Sasse fears for our youth.

He is a U.S. Senator, and therefore he is a very busy man with little time to spare for side projects. Yet, so great is his concern for our kids’ predicament, that he has taken the time to write a book about it. It is not a bad book, even if you do not agree with what it says. You will have to trust me (or not) on the exact contents, because, “You may not make this e-book public in any way”, is all I will quote directly from it.

His thesis is laid out in the book’s title, The Vanishing American Adult, and he has summarized the gist of his prescription in the subtitle, Our Coming-of-Age Crisis – and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.

In the text, he depicts a generation afflicted by aimlessness. They have been stunted by coming up in the shade of social media and cultural relativism. Deprived of the harsh choices and bright lessons of social responsibilities and traditional rites of passage, kids have grown passive. They lack the ‘grit’ to sustain our society.

I won’t quibble with his depiction. Social media is a blight. The current generation operates on the assumption that ‘someone will take care of it’. Giving up is always an option for them.

I do disagree with his diagnosis and prescription, however. He seems to think that helplessness and hollowness result from a deficiency of citizenship. The correction would then involve a big shot of citizenship. He is completely mistaken. In fact, emptiness is the natural outcome of citizenship, and helplessness is just a reactive symptom.

On the most basic level, citizenship is a position in which one gets told that one’s life is fungible. One’s time, attention, motivation, and psyche can be chopped up and traded for goods to satisfy certain needs. Of course, Sasse recognizes this situation. He mentions “development of the individual” on a couple of occasions as a worthy pursuit, but only if it is pursued to certain ends (becoming responsible, self-sacrificing, ‘gritty’ – in other words, all those things that make a solid citizen). As far as I can tell, only the ends distinguish healthy developmental activities from selfishness, in Sasse’s estimation. And in a shocking coincidence, healthy ends are those for which the goods of citizenship come in handy.

“Why won’t my blood sugar go down?”

Maybe my analysis is unfair. Sasse contends that we are all a little defective, and our institutions may be a little defective, too. We should not expect a perfect synergy between man and social machine, even though the basic program is sound and actually the best that we can do.

But I hear differently all the time.

“I’m doing all those things that the diabetic educator told me to. I have changed my diet. I am walking every day. I am taking my medications like clockwork. So why is my blood sugar still high?”

This person is in my office every day, wearing a different, outfit, a different ethnicity, or a different gender. Yet they are the same person. They have a sit-down job, or two, in which they spend 40-60 hours per week dealing with an incestuous dataset – something so about itself, whether it is driving a cab or processing claims, that it demands attention to automatisms rather than any  particular skill. To ensure that their attention does not waver, an overseer tracks their activities and rates their efficiency. Their extraneous physiological and psychological functions are regulated by the employer as distractions.

The citizen in my office sleeps 6 hours per night, or less. They drink energy drinks to keep going, and eat foods which the package or the vendor says are healthy, because they haven’t the time or energy to prepare their own food. They are too exhausted to exercise properly.

As a result, they are obese, diabetic and hypertensive. As a result, they now require one of the goods for which they can sub-divide themselves: medical care.

Which brings us to where the defense of citizenship as a natural-born fertilizer for human development, breaks down. The trouble with the whole thing is not the palate of goods on offer, their costs, or the means of valuation. The trouble is the chopping, because the roots of experience (attention, motivation, responsiveness, etc.) can’t be cut up for a purpose, especially for delayed gratification of a specific need. The very notion mistakes the nature of needs and the relationship between our needs and our activities. Here, Sasse may have been better served by spending a little more time reading Nietzsche, and a little less time reading Rousseau and the Bible.

For an organism’s needs can’t really be parsed. The motivations underlying our activities are merely aspects of a single motive which Nietzsche labeled ‘will to power’. Even when we try to perform an isolated act of attention, we feel something about it, our neuro-hormonal system responds to it, and it tires us globally.

But Sasse seems to think there’s a neat way around the problem of dividing the indivisible.

Life on the Farm or 8 Pitches Up?

In the latter half of the book, Sasse talks about how he sent his daughter to work on a ranch. The idea was to teach her how to enjoy work – not any particular task, but work itself. Basically, he sought to teach her how to thrive as an instrument. It’s pretty clever, really.

He explains the strategy in a vignette:

Martin Luther met a man who had just become a Christian and wanted to know how best to serve the Lord. He asked Luther, “How can I be a good servant? What should I do?” He expected Luther to tell him that he should quit his job and become a minister, monk, or missionary.

Luther replied with a question, “What do you do now?

“I’m  cobbler. I make shoes”, the man answered.

“Then make great shoes”, Luther replied, “and sell them at a fair price – to the glory of God.”

In other words, find integrity in being a good instrument. I think the flaw in this reasoning is obvious: Why not make great shoes to the glory of Satan? It’s the devotion part that really matters, right? This notion of the human lost at heart and essentially in search of a set of rails (any rails) undergirds fascism through the ages, and it works superficially, so long as the social venue is stable.

But I took another path with my kids, because I learned more from sitting on a ledge, than I ever did from a job.

We have climbed several long routes together. We have looked up, down, and out from ledges in the middle of those routes and soaked in the lessons: however precarious the position, what falls to us is to pass the water around, check the system, and find our way through the next rope-length of terrain; trust your partners as you trust yourself; no matter how cold, hot, tired or thirsty you are, the beauty of the sky and landscape remain; achievement, i.e. ‘ticking the route’, doesn’t really matter – it is only a means to get you to the ledge.

In taking them on those climbs, my hope was to offer them a way of life which put making a living in perspective, rather than telling them that making a living would put everything in perspective for them.

A different vignette illustrates my point:

     Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip, zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the Dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou Music.
“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way [“Dao”], which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now, now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.”
“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.”
“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wenhui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to nurture life!”
— Zhuangzi, chapter 3 (Watson translation)

I do not see the current generation as sissified hedonists, any more than previous generations. The hypersensitivity, the passivity, the absorption (self and otherwise) all look like symptoms of a bunker mentality. They see what’s in store for them and they don’t like it, but they don’t seem to know how to resist.

A Sasse-type message has gotten through. The citizenry coming of age does think that it must learn to embrace a social role (little worker, little voter, little contributor) wholeheartedly in order to fully mature, and it just can’t bring itself to do so. The instinct is right. Kids growing up in this era are being asked to pursue a sort of faux-maturity which involves merely “giving up childish things”, and the achievement of that state will leave them empty and utterly dependent on a structure which deals with them on the basis of a flawed methodology.

They need a little less Ben Sasse, and a little more Cook Ding, when it comes to advice about how to grow up. Because maturity means dealing with your situation – not just endorsing it – and dealing with it artfully. It means getting over being The Cobbler, The Christian, The Cobbler-Christian, or even The Cook.

In Sasse’s terms, I have laid out the Romantic counter-argument to his Realist argument regarding the nature of the individual’s relationship to civilization. But I reject that characterization to some extent. There isn’t an inherent conflict between the individual and the civilization. We are stuck with our civilization. It lies before us like the carcass of a great ox, and it is just as indifferent.

We get chopped up in our interaction with it, but our own hand is on the knife. And I agree with Ben Sasse here,  maturity is the solution. Not the faux maturity which the senator espouses, which is just a form of selling out, but actual maturity which sets limits and carves its own way, not towards some magical future, but like the cook’s knife, in the present where we all reside.








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The Simple Life

Life? Don’t talk to me about Life.

– Marvin the Robot


Life, living matter and, as such, matter that shows certain attributes that include responsiveness, growth, metabolism, energy transformation, and reproduction.

– Encyclopedia Brittanica

The javelina was dead, no doubt about it. By the looks (and odor) of the ruin which lay in the ditch, it had been several days since the animal had lived, as such.

Most likely, it had been hit on the nearby road and dragged itself to the protection of the ditch before collapsing. ‘Collapsing’ means: it ceased to respond as a javelina. Certain nerve cells lost their flow of metabolic substrate, could no longer transform energy in covalent bonds into electrical potential across cell membranes, and so could no longer respond as nerve cells.

The javelina behaved as a javelina if and only if those nerve cells behaved as nerve cells: no more nerve behaviors, no more javelina behaviors. Yet the remainder of the organism ticked along for quite a while after its defining brain functions ceased. Less sensitive tissues took minutes, or even hours to stop responding, growing, reproducing, etc.

Even after the last of the body’s eukaryotic cells ceased to do all those life-defining things, the prokaryotic components of the javelina carried on. Many of the bacteria which had worked with its other cells to keep the animal alive and healthy before it came to lie still in the ditch, continued to grow, metabolize, reproduce, etc.

At the other end of the javelina’s timeline, we see a similar situation. Before its mother could conceive, the environmental circumstances had to be right for piglets. Furthermore, its mother and father had to be right for the circumstances. They had to have a set of characteristics which led to survival and relative prosperity in their particular living conditions.

Within those proper circumstances, gamete membranes met and fused, DNA recombined, placental syncytium formed, organogenesis took place, the piglet began to exhibit its own physiology, and the little  javelina emerged from the amnion to take its first breath.  From some fairly basic biochemical reactions to the defining processes of biology itself, the animal faded into life, much as it faded into death.

Many people find this picture disconcerting. They yearn for the simple life, where our definitions are definitive and what’s real is real in and of itself. But that’s not what we have. The simple life, and its decadent certainty, are not available to us.



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Is a Virus Alive?

life, living matter and, as such, matter that shows certain attributes that include responsiveness, growth, metabolism, energy transformation, and reproduction. – Encyclopedia Brittanica

Close enough, and encompassing the generally accepted criteria: responsiveness, reproduction, metabolism and adaptation. My older son asked the question about viruses the other day. I have been looking forward to this question. It means that he is prepared to understand some things about life which are important. It is a tricky question if considered from the wrong viewpoint. A virus displays some of the characteristics which define a living organism. It can respond to stimuli, attaching to the proper cells and injecting its genetic material through the cell membrane when it makes contact. It can replicate. It can adapt to avoid a host immune response. But it does not have the capacity to metabolize. It cannot, in other words, run its own show. It is entirely dependent on its host organism in that respect. Nor is the virus alone on the gray borders of life. Certain families of bacteria lack some essential metabolic processes which would make them autonomous. They must live inside another cell, and depend on their host’s metabolism to survive. Yet, they too can reproduce, adapt, and respond to stimuli in their environment. Because they have a membrane which is active, biologists are prone to give obligate intracellular bacteria, like mycoplasma and Rickettsia, a break. Most biologists are less charitable when it comes to prions. Prions are mis-folded proteins which replicate by somehow inducing their own conformal change in normally folded proteins with which they come in contact. Prions can reproduce, but they cannot metabolize. They cannot adapt much (although they have managed to pass from cows to humans), but they can respond to their environment, albeit in a very limited way. Still, the difference between the prion and the obligate intracellular bacterium would seem to be one of magnitude rather than quality. Differences in their classification reflect a little bit of membrane chauvinism on the part of biologists. The same prejudice is evident in the gray zone at the other end of the complexity scale. By our criteria for life, is a male angler fish alive? The fish can survive for a short period of time independently, but it cannot carry on its own metabolic processes independently for the long-term. It must rely on a female angler fish. It must quickly sniff out a female and attach itself to her, permanently. The male fish spends most of its existence as a tissue of the female angler fish’s body; its brief, free swimming existence is a transitional aberration. Its ability to adapt is extremely limited. Its existence can be mapped on an algorithm only barely more complex than the one which describes a prion’s lifestyle. So what does differentiate the male angler fish from a mycoplasma bacterium, a virus, or even a prion? A few extra membranes make the only difference. Even our own status as living things is at risk if we apply our criteria strictly. We can certainly reproduce, just like the viruses, obligate intracellular bacteria, prions, and angler fish. But it is questionable whether or not we can independently metabolize. We actually rely on hereditary intracellular symbionts for our primary metabolic process. Without these symbionts, our mitochondria, we could live only minutes on the metabolic processes encoded by our own genetic material. So, we can hardly be blamed for fudging our criteria. We certainly want to call ourselves alive. Since it looks and acts alive, we want to call the male angler fish alive. For practical purposes, we also want to call Rickettsia and mycoplasma alive, as well as viruses from time to time. As for the prions, it is often more convenient to view them as sophisticated toxins rather than living things. And that’s the upshot of my son’s question. The issue of whether or not a virus is alive is only confusing if we consider “life” an actual, efficacious thing. But life is just a category. When we look out across the terrible landscape of things, we see phenomena which cluster about each other by dint of their shared heritage. Our account of our cluster is biology, and our criteria for life provide the outline for our biological stories. This is correct viewpoint on the question of life, and what is alive. But this is not the popular viewpoint. The popular viewpoint attempts to preserve life as a thing, as vital essence or emergent property. Unfortunately, the popular viewpoint is not feasible. It leads inexorably back to the original question rephrased, “where is the life in a thing to be found?” In the end, we find that the essence or the emergent property is explained by the operational mechanisms and properties of the thing in question, but it in turn, explains nothing about the thing; it just notes where that particular thing lies on the vast, terrible landscape of things. Despite its glaring inadequacy, the popular viewpoint remains popular because it seems to save us from losing an idea that we don’t feel comfortable losing. But we don’t need to worry, becoming a category doesn’t vitiate life. We have the things which the category marks clustered around us after all, even if it’s only according to our viewpoint. We can’t escape life anymore than we can climb out of our skins. So, the answer to the question? Sure, a virus is alive – as long as you can explain why.

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