Sociobiology and Lewis Thomas

Though I am steeped in the liberal arts, I have been increasingly curious about the biological sciences. Those of us who have “escaped” into abstraction must always remember that there is a biological dimension to all these “new-fangled ideas” that we revel in. One of my favorite books in biology dates back to 1963, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, by Lewis Thomas. Thomas vividly describes this “biological dimension” and suggests at times its inextricable relationship to human behavior, individually and collectively.

From this book I posit the notion that life itself is basically about the creation of boundaries and the evolution of these “boundaries” into increasingly complex relationships. These relationships require that boundaries be there in the first place but at the same it time means that these boundaries cannot be so rigid that communication between the various “boundaries”, or entities, is not possible. Either extreme leads to grave complications and ultimately death itself.

On an individual level this means that an ego, a specific identity that wells up from within a body, must have boundaries to exist psycho-socially. Without an ego we would have only a blob of proto-plasm with no process of differentiation that can lead to higher-order organisms and eventually human beings. But simultaneously this “ego” must not be too impermeable. It must be firm enough that it can quickly learn to endure Shakespeare’s “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” And for this “learning” to take place, this ego must not become a fortress but must be open to the world outside of itself, it must be a “human” at some point, a social creature.

I would like to here share one tidbit from the book itself, an observation about the Iks culture from Uganda. Thomas argues that impingement from the outside, “modernity”, encroached so much and so quickly on these people that they could not function. They devolved into a very reproachable, detestable tribe of erstwhile human beings. Their talk with each other was rude and self-serving, they stopped singing, they lost emotional connection with their children, and they even would defecate on each other’s doorstep. Thomas’ intention here is a demonstration on what will happen on the collective level if the outside world does not respect the boundaries of a specific culture. And the impact that the “victim” culture experiences depends on two things—-1) its own “ego-integrity” (the ability to handle feedback from the outside) and 2) the rapacity of the outside world.

The above example illustrates the “abuse” that one culture, or even the “world culture” at large, can impose on a particular culture. It also vividly illustrates what can happen on the individual level if a child, in particular,  is abused—sexually, physically, and even emotionally . In human terms, the “soul” gets ravaged and often the soul cannot function meaningfully any longer or is at least gravely impaired.

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