Two ways that the self may be a collective

The pairing of two seemingly-unrelated articles prompts this posting, which examines some of the ways that we can reconsider our “selves” as something other than unitary beings, or even unitary perceptions of dynamic states of being.

The first article is “The Normal, Well-Tempered Mind,” by Daniel Dennett, published by EDGE on January 8th.

Dennett writes, “I’m trying to undo a mistake I made some years ago, and rethink the idea that the way to understand the mind is to take it apart into simpler minds and then take those apart into still simpler minds until you get down to minds that can be replaced by a machine.” While Dennett continues to support “the vision of the brain as a computer,” he no longer supports the “dramatic over-simplification” that the brain is a simple system of interconnected individual parts. Even trillions of moving parts is too simple, Dennett now believes.

“Each neuron, far from being a simple logical switch, is a little agent with an agenda, and they are much more autonomous and much more interesting than any switch,” Dennett writes.

The question is, what happens to your ideas about computational architecture when you think of individual neurons not as dutiful slaves or as simple machines but as agents that have to be kept in line and that have to be properly rewarded and that can form coalitions and cabals and organizations and alliances?  This vision of the brain as a sort of social arena of politically warring forces seems like sort of an amusing fantasy at first, but is now becoming something that I take more and more seriously, and it’s fed by a lot of different currents.

Dennett writes that the brain is not a well-ordered bureaucracy. “In fact, it’s much more like anarchy with some elements of democracy.” In other words, it may be that the brain is a semi-chaotic system, not a purpose-built structure.

It’s going to be a connectionist network. Although we know many of the talents of connectionist networks, how do you knit them together into one big fabric that can do all the things minds do? Who’s in charge? What kind of control system?

Dennett p0ints out that every human cell “is a direct descendent of eukaryotic cells that lived and fended for themselves for about a billion years as free-swimming, free-living little agents. They fended for themselves, and they survived.”

Over a great span of time, these independent cells became “domesticated.” But our neurons either remained or through some genetic process became once again “a little bit feral.”

In a deeply intriguing speculation, Dennett writes:

Maybe a lot of the neurons in our brains are not just capable but, if you like, motivated to be more adventurous, more exploratory or risky in the way they comport themselves, in the way they live their lives. They’re struggling amongst themselves with each other for influence, just for staying alive, and there’s competition going on between individual neurons. As soon as that happens, you have room for cooperation to create alliances, and I suspect that a more free-wheeling, anarchic organization is the secret of our greater capacities of creativity, imagination, thinking outside the box and all that, and the price we pay for it is our susceptibility to obsessions, mental illnesses, delusions and smaller problems.

This is, pun intended, heady stuff. The notion that our brains are colonies of semi-independent organisms whose dynamic interactions create what we call “thought” and “consciousness” profoundly challenges our sense of ourselves as a unitary organism, a single creature with a single identity. Thinking of our bodies and our brains as ever-changing coalitions of semi-independent organisms makes the question “Who am I?” seem even more inappropriate than we already had begun to understand.

The second article,”The hologenome: A new view of evolution” (January 14th), now behind a paywall at New Sicentist but so far available free here, considers how “symbiotic microbes may shape the evolution of the plants and animals that play host to them.”

While considering the semi-independent life of our cells, Dennett briefly dismissed the symbionts that inhabit our bodies. They don’t loom large in his consideration of consciousness. But they do dominate discussion of the “microbiome,” the microbes that live in and on us.

The New Scientist article discusses the idea of a “hologenome,” an environment in which microbes play a significant role in our evolution. These organisms live with us, but they are not “us.” Yet they profoundly influence our lives. They may be so important that “instead of thinking about an individual plant or animal, we should think about the overall collective including the microbiome – the ‘performance unit’.” If this is true, then “This unit comprises the contributions of many, sometimes thousands, of individual genomes, in varying combinations and numbers.” And “an animal’s survival – or fitness – often depends not just on its own genes, but also on those of the microbes it inherits.”

It may be that “the separation of an organism from its microbiome is artificial.” Natural selection works on a combination of the host’s genome and the genomes of all of the host’s symbionts. The result is the “hologenome.” From this viewpoint, we are not single organisms. We’re not even a single collection of semi-independent organisms, as Dennett speculated. In this view, each individual may be seen as a combination of internal cellular agents and the genetic characteristics and behaviours of all of those other organisms that share our bodies. We are not organism but superorganism.

One scientist supports this idea with an outsourcing analogy:  “All the bacteria doing useful jobs in and on our body are not just symbionts. Rather, they are part of us, like distant workers for a giant company that outsources manufacturing jobs. The work being done remains just as important for the company even though it is carried out by overseas workers it does not employ directly. ”

There are many skeptics, especially among evolutionary biologists, who are reluctant to expand the unit of selection so dramatically. But even if the “hologenome” theory is to date more speculative than proved, it provides another way of viewing our “selves” as something quite different than any kind of creature to which we can accurately apply singular pronouns.

Do I believe that our brains are communities of sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating individual agents we call neurons? Do I accept that my evolution is the evolution of hundreds, even thousands of commingled genomes, only one of which is human?

I’m not yet convinced. But boy, am I ever intrigued!


2 thoughts on “Two ways that the self may be a collective

  1. Fantastic post. As a person whose neurons are probably more anarchic than most, I appreciate the connections between what we gain and what we pay for creativity. My anarchic neurons also lead me to believe that whatever we call god is not some superorganism at the beginning of time, but some superorganism at the end. We are the cell dreaming the eye.

  2. I do think you are on to something well worth exploring. I particularly like the arguably inextricable connection you point out between an organism such as ourselves and the microbiome. I also wonder if Lynn Margulis had not had to face such scientific prejudicial headwinds trying to establish endosymbiotic theory , if she would not have gone on to explore “exosybbiosis” -the full breadth would eventually encompass the profound and obvious fact that we need plants to breathe and they need us to breathe, the regulatory mechanics of macro biology in the context of earth beginning with the oxygen catastrophe – and so on. Great post! Thanks.

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