My disorientation

March 16, 2010 | By | 5 Replies More

I’m finding myself to be disoriented tonight. You see, it has occurred to me (as it sometimes does) that I’m actually an incredibly complex community of trillions of individual cells, no single one of which is capable of having any conscious thought, though I am easily able to think consciously as a complex adaptive system of cells.

I’m also disoriented because it occurs to me tonight that this community of that is “me” is kept alive and conscious by an internal pulsing ocean of blood, its composition very much like the Earth’s oceans, which were apparently our ancestral home. Equally amazing, this internal ocean of blood is pumped through 60,000 mile of blood vessels by a heart that beats 100,000 each day, thanks to our incredibly reliable pacemaker cells. How can any of this possibly be true, except that it is true, because I am writing this post and you are reading it?

It also occurs to me that there are far too many other parts of my human body that I almost always take for granted, such as my liver, which continuously performs hundreds of chemical processes without any conscious help from “me” (not that I could possibly be of assistance).  Even more amazing, the liver can repair itself. How is any of this remotely possible?

There are many other things on my mind tonight, all of which disorient me, because I’m trying to clear out my preconceptions and see these things as though I were seeing them for the first time. For instance, I seem to have evolved from viruses, which is mind-blowing. Actually, half of all human DNA originally came from viruses which embedded themselves into my ancestor’s gametes.

Neurons - creative commons (image by UC Regents)

Neurons - creative commons (image by UC Regents)

But I’m not done describing my disorientation.  I am also disoriented tonight because I’ve reminded myself that some of my ancestors were sponges.  No, they didn’t just look like sponges; they were sponges. And once cells figured out how to thrive together in that primitive sponge-like way, things rapidly got far more interesting.  This real-world story of human gills, paws and fur is more amazing than any fiction anyone could ever write.

Tonight, I am also thinking about several people I know who are fighting for their lives against illness.  I sometimes hear their friends and family asking how it could happen that the patients got so sick. But I’ve got a different take on human frailty, sickness and death. I wonder how something so complex as the human body works at all. Ever. Truly, how is it that I can even wiggle one of my fingers?

But there’s yet more to my disorientation tonight.   It also occurs to me that the community of cells that constitutes me is living on a huge rotating orb that revolves around a star so big that it makes the earth look like a speck.

But there’s more.  It seems that the universe in which we find ourselves is expanding, but from what? How did it get here? I don’t trust any answers that I’ve ever heard.  I’m assuming that some type of universe or multi-verse has always been here in one form or another, and that’s admittedly my bald speculative assumption.  I don’t even know enough to have a belief on the topic.

Earth - NASA photo - public domain

Earth - NASA photo - public domain

It also disorients me that no one really knows why things exist in this way rather than in some other way or no way at all, although many people peddle simplistic answers–mere strings of words–in response to these basic questions.

The biggest reason I’m disoriented tonight is that it appears that we don’t even know how to ask the biggest questions–we betray our naive ways even by the way we describe such questions as “big.”  Our “whys” and “hows” are pale and shallow—we appear to be condemned to forever dabble with our conceptual metaphors in our attempts to understand our complicated existence.  We seem to be trapped in our finite understanding, unable to ever get around our own corner.  That’s the way it seems to be to me tonight, and every time these sorts of thought come to mind.

I’m disoriented, but don’t get me wrong.  I’m not complaining.  I am truly enjoying the ride. I never cease to be amazed.


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Category: Astronomy, Human animals, Meaning of Life

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Rachel Locke says:

    Yeah, I'm there all the time. If i think about it too much, i just get more bewildered. And why am i writing a neurobiology of disease textbook???

  2. Best ride ever. Too bad about the people who are scared to death about it and try to stop the ride, mostly by pretending it all simply doesn't exist.

  3. Alison says:

    Disoriented, Erich? I think of the same things, and I feel amazed and excited. The size and historic scope of the universe itself all the way down to our own, more limited, earthly existence,gets me all pumped up. In my lifetime, most of the mysteries will still remain unsolved. The fact that we're aware they exist, though, and that people are finding ways to figure out so many of the pieces, is thrilling to me. I may not have the education or avocation that puts me in the thick of discovery, but I get such a thrill from each new one. It's like a book or movie or TV show that ends on a cliffhanger – not only was that episode great, but you can hardly wait for the next one. . .and the one after that.

    I do think about all the complexities of our bodies, as well. As with anything, the more complicated something is, the more potential there is for something to go wrong. When I was first trying to have children, and having trouble, the research clearly pointed out that the process of fertilization and implantation alone were so detailed and specific that it was fertility, not infertility, that was less likely to succeed. Overall, we are so complex in so many ways, our survival seems to be an act of beating the odds.

    Plus, with other creatures whose survival is based upon their adaptation to the environment, we have learned to change our environment to suit ourselves, meaning that the flaws and weaknesses that might be wiped out in a generation or two in another animal species instead get passed along and mutate. So we find ways to treat/cure/manage all these new defects, pass them on to future generations. . .and STILL survive!

    My inner child finds out about this stuff, jumps up and down and claps her hands and goes SQUEE! (I behave much more sedately than this on the outside, of course.) My only sense of disorientation comes from trying to decide which new thing to learn about next. I hope you get your bearings, soon, Erich!!

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    I'm with Alison. I regularly stretch my imagination to see the roots of how we came to be and are still becoming.

    It is a trip to realize how few of the atoms that were the adult me three decades ago are still part of me. Even neural tissue and bone exchanges ions busily. Yet memory (malleable as it is) persists.

    It is a hoot to see how most of our atoms formed or decayed out of the quark soup in a supernova, and then self assembled into molecules that self assembled into clusters that assembled into cells that assembled into organisms that assembled into societies that invented the ability to wonder about such things.

  5. KennyCelican says:

    A few quick things.

    First, a minor correction; while viruses accelerate evolution, the last texts I read on the subject were firmly in the camp that viruses evolved from simple organisms. What's fascinating to me is that a system evolved a way to speed its own evolution.

    Second, Pratchett said it best in 'The Science of Discworld'; Evolution progresses and Life continues not so much out of any kind of inevitability, but out of sheer bloodymindedness. We live not because life is inevitable, but because above all we refuse to die.

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