Culture is a Package Deal

As a biologist, I am very aware of how systems which seem to be one being are actually a lot of beings clubbing together (like sponges) and beings that seem to be a lot of unconnected beings are actually one system (like termites).

Humans like to think of themselves as single beings, but that is not only anthropocentric but also just plain wrong. We could not digest food without our gut bacteria, for example, but we prefer not to think of ourselves merely as a life-support system for their comfort. Even more telling, no living beings at all would exist without mitochondria (google it up, they are way cool).

Mitochondria live as individual beings in all of our cells and we, comprised of these many beings, consider ourselves as a single living being and self-aware. Obviously, we are imperfectly self-aware since we can communicate with neither our gut bacteria nor our mitochondria. But this concept forms a template that we can apply in a different way.

What if we are the mitochondria and the Earth Herself is the Living Being that is also a system? She, unlike ourselves and our bacteria, parasites, and organelles, is truly Self-aware and can communicate with her many parts, as well as those Spirits of Place or Events who have come to live here on the Earth.

This is a recognized biological theory, the Gaia hypothesis, named after the Greek Goddess. Biology shies away from identifying a Being as a Goddess even when using divine names, but the theory inescapably defines the Earth Organism as powerful and directed. As a believer as well as a biologist, I add wise as an attribute.

If we look at what Earth has done in Her physical manifestation and try to draw conclusions about Her intentions, it seems that She has acted to create life on Herself. By actions too numerous to discuss at length: the properties of water, the amount and salinity of the oceans, the action of amino acid chains, global forestation and plankton, the interaction between carbon dioxide and oxygen– She has fostered the occurrence of life. Clearly, She feels quite differently about being covered with living things than we feel about our eyelash mites. I think that She loves life. In the largest and most inclusive sense, She is our First Ancestor since it is from Her seas we evolved and on Her body we live. Step back into space and look at the pretty blue ball– we are not just connected to Earth’s myriad forms through association and choice but inextricably and transcendentally a part of the one organism.

However, apart from the evolutionary motherhood of Hertha, we have another ancient maternal ancestor. I mentioned mitochondria, those lovable and delightful organelles.
Mitochondria,_mammalian_lung_-_TEMThe theory is that when the first cell walled itself off from the rest of the lively soup that was, at the time, the world’s seas that some of the bits (scientifically called organelles) that providentially became part of the cell were mitochondria. Luckily for us, mitochondria dispense energy as their waste product and thus assist us (and all other living things) in being alive. This accidental-inclusion theory is suggested and supported by the fact that mitochondria, while part of every cell, are clearly unrelated to us and have quite different DNA than ourselves or anybody else they are riding around in.

Unlike larger life, mitochondria’s DNA mutate very little and so allow science to perceive the relatedness of beings by comparing their mitochondrial DNA (mDNA for short). We get our mDNA just from our mothers; it is a part of the egg which is our first cell and our father’s mDNA is subsumed into it. So, although our fathers have mitochondria as well (every living thing does), when we compare our cells we are comparing only our mother’s mDNA. This mDNA comparison, startlingly, shows that today’s human beings all have one maternal ancestor who lived some one to two hundred thousand years ago when modern humans were getting started up.

Of course other species of people (Neanderthals and some other humanish types) and other humans like herself were alive with her and but only her line of descendants successfully carries on to today and ourselves. Her sisters didn’t have daughters– or her granddaughters didn’t have daughters, it’s not an instantaneous thing. Knowing that our mDNA comes from her doesn’t explain why she is our ancestor; all speculation from ‘fabulously successful mutation’ to ‘random chance’ is possible but unprovable. But there she is, her legacy in every one of our cells, still largely unchanged.

This Universal Mother (known to google-fu as ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, a title I find too twee for acceptance) is our oldest ancestor, genetically related to us but otherwise profoundlydistant in both time and perception. Her brain was very much like ours and so then the WAY she thought was much the same as ourselves but WHAT she thought about was unimaginably different in specific but, I feel, akin to us in general. She was thinking about what’s for dinner, what her children were doing, how to understand the people around her– much like Facebook without the cats. I also believe that her emotions were similar to ours– wanting love, finding comfort in friends, feeling the bonds of kinship– and that she, called up to the edge of the Timeless Land Beyond Death by our remembrance of her, will speak to us about those all-encompassing human issues of the ideals and feelings that we share.

One of the giant philosophical problems in the struggle towards Right Thought and Right Action is and has always been the acceptance of universal personhood.

Historically, the first step in subjugation or conquest has been that ‘those people’ (‘that sex’, ‘that colour’, ‘that handicap’) are not really people, not like us, and that what we wish to inflict on them is different than it would be if inflicted on us. But it is obvious that we are all far more like each other than unlike (we are also far more like chimpanzees than not and more like lettuce than not but, really, one step at a time). We are not only all just ‘people’ but we all have one shared ancestor which makes us all one extended family. It sounds like a vague mystical pronouncement to say ‘Mother Earth made us and we are all related’ but, as it turns out, Science confirms this. We all have mitochondria (‘we are all made of star-stuff’ ) and we humans are all descended from one specific many-great-grandmother. When we invoke ‘the ancestors’ we are all sharing the same one.

Where does this lead us?

Well, we are all connected. As I have demonstrated, science shows us this. But if you (along with myself and Jung) believe in the collective unconscious, we are also connected in a less scientific way as well. Jung’s theorizing about the collective unconscious in 1916 definitively predates microscopic examination of cell organelles, gene theory and the double helix, and most proto-human anthropological discoveries, but gives us a different way to perceive that we are in communication with each other and our past. Simply put, Jung posits that all humankind shares a primordial collective understanding that allows us a commonality of thought. The same idea that I presented— that the Mitochondrial Mother felt about and responded to her surroundings in ways like us— but without the DNA. One person’s whiteness compared to another’s not-whiteness is trivial since we’re both similar to lettuce, cellularly. Sadly, however, I haven’t been able to think of a catchy slogan….

‘All Lives are Indistinguishable…But Let’s Pay Attention To The Ones At The Low End Of The Scale Until All Lives Are Valued Equally’ just doesn’t dance along well.
‘All of Us And Lettuce Too’ seems a little obscure.

So we’re all in the same club, ‘humans’, and none of us get to be exclusive founding members (I read dated English mystery novels for relaxation and often bump into that odd pronouncement, “Ours is an ancient family”, like my forebears were somehow new); how does that impact our behaviours? I have raised chickens; you put an order in with the hatchery and get a big cardboard box of chicks. They are all just a few days old; you take them home, set up the heat lamp, feeders, and waterer and then tip the box out onto the henhouse floor. The chicks all scratch and peck two or three steps
away from the box, huddle around the heat lamp, and take little beak-raising drinks from the fountain. All the rest of their lives, no one has to teach them anything (nor do they learn a great deal, the other side of the coin).

Chimpanzee_mother_with_babyPeople? Not so much. Just like other primates and many other animals, if they aren’t taught how to be themselves they never learn. Humans are so far down that evolutionary path as to create a hot-button twitch in biologists—

“Instinctively I knew/felt/responded/understood…..”
— causing the biologist to shriek “Not the Case!!!!” and sometimes fling down written material or turn off devices or irritatingly (for the non-biologists) correct speakers.

Humans have an instinctive fear of falling. It makes them startle and grasp and probably is connected to infant primates swinging through trees holding onto their mamas’ fur.

Babies have a few more (rooting, not breathing when immersed, etc) but adults?

“Instinctively I startled awake when sleeping relaxation caused my arm to slide off my body” is about the only accurate statement possible but, oddly, that’s not what most people think of when describing instinctive behaviours.

Where does this lead us?

We learn our culture, every bit of it. It’s not really a part of our collective humanness hidden in our unconscious mind. And every part is connected to the other parts (like the termites and sponges I started off with) and it works as a whole; you can’t snap off a tasty, glittery bit for your use and leave the rest behind. We’re all in the same club, but it’s the club of not-knowing. Or, as I have said to many a plastic-hat-wearing drunk,”If yer Granny didn’t teach you the words to ‘Danny Boy’ then shut the F up!”


Judith O’Grady

judithJudith is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).  She also has an upcoming piece in A Beautiful Resistance