November 22, 2008

1. Yankee Zen

I visited the Great Books group in nearby East Providence. They were reading and discussing Chapter 2 of Thoreau’s Walden. It was a popular choice — people seemed to enjoy it more than any other reading. I myself thoroughly enjoyed it. Chapter 2 is self-contained; you can appreciate it without reading Chapter 1 or Chapter 3. It’s a paean to wakefulness, to awareness, to appreciation of the present moment, to Zen. It has no use for traditional morality or traditional religion, and speaks scornfully of preachers and churches. Thoreau describes preachers

vexing the ears of drowsy farmers on their day of rest at the end of the week — for Sunday is the fit conclusion of an ill-spent week, and not the fresh and brave beginning of a new one — with this one other draggle-tail of a sermon...

Instead of this, preachers should urge their listeners to cease their busy business, and desist from their hectic life, which is accompanied not by awareness but by the slumber of routine. Preachers “should shout with thundering voice, ‘Pause! Avast! Why so seeming fast, but deadly slow?’” (I’m reminded of the Zen jest, “Don’t just do something! Stand there!”) Thoreau’s idea of a “religious exercise” is a morning bath in Walden Pond.

Joseph Campbell said we don’t seek a meaning of life, we seek the feeling of being fully alive. I thought of this as I read Thoreau, because he urges us to be awake, and then says, “To be awake is to be alive.” Thoreau urges us to be fully alive, not to ‘lay waste our powers in getting and spending’ (as Wordsworth put it). Thoreau laments that “Our life is frittered away by detail.”

The mystic is sometimes accused of quitting life, rejecting life, but perhaps it’s the mystic who is most alive. And the mystic often affirms death as well as life. Thoreau, too, seems to affirm death: “Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.”

Thoreau criticizes our “daily life of routine and habit,” which keeps us from appreciation of the present; he would have agreed with Pater, who said, “In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits.” Sunk in a life of routine and habit, we think that distant places and times were better, more enlightened:

Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages.

Thoreau realizes that children are awake and alive, children aren’t sunk in routines and habits, children don’t long for distant times and places. “I have always been regretting,” Thoreau writes, “that I was not as wise as the day I was born.”

Thoreau says that most men are in a “strange uncertainty” about whether the world is “of the devil or of God.” As I read this, I thought

Why “or”? Why is the world of the devil or of God? Why not and? Doesn’t it seem that the world is of the devil and of God?

Thoreau puts his finger on the pulse of the universe, and tries to tell us the essence of the universe. Discussing “the faint hum of a mosquito,” he says, “There was something cosmical about it; a standing advertisement... of the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world.” Thoreau doesn’t discuss virtue or God or the Bible; mystic that he is, he’s concerned with the universe, and he’s concerned with the human mind, the human soul.1 He’s concerned with the “force and aspirations” within us, and our effort to live a “noble life” — not a moral or godly life, but a noble life. He urges us not merely to create beautiful pictures and statues, but to create a good life: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Thoreau points out that technical progress doesn’t make our lives better — it distracts us, it draws us away from our own souls. “If we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”

Another distraction in the modern world is, according to Thoreau, news:

I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper.... To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip.

In these days of billion-dollar budget deficits, and trillion-dollar national debts, Thoreau’s political advice seems sensible:

The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense... as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.1B

Like other chapters of Walden, Chapter 2 is full of puns, witticisms, and quotations from Eastern classics. My favorite witticism is at the start of the chapter, when Thoreau is discussing his plans to buy a farm, and his eventual decision not to buy one: “My imagination carried me so far that I even had the refusal of several farms — the refusal was all I wanted — but I never got my fingers burned by actual possession.” Thoreau urges his readers to be wary of major purchases, especially real estate: “As long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.” Chapter 2 is so rich in deep thoughts and poetic expressions that it couldn’t have been written at a sitting — and in fact, we know that Thoreau re-wrote Walden numerous times.

Surfing around the Internet, I found a book called Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer. I recommend it, it has better footnotes than the Norton Critical Edition. Cramer also published an annotated volume of Thoreau’s essays, and numerous other Thoreau-related books.

There’s something naive and impractical in Thoreau, but there’s also a deep wisdom. The people in the Great Books group felt that we couldn’t all live alone in a small cabin by a pond, but they were much impressed by Chapter 2, and they felt that, regardless of our location or our occupation, we could all live more Waldenly than we do.

2. The Wisdom of the Body

Nuland’s Wisdom of the Body has three kinds of material:

  1. Biology basics (useful for someone like me who’s trying to learn these basics)
  2. Case histories (interesting and easy to read)
  3. Philosophizing (not the book’s forte)

One of Nuland’s philosophical passages reminded me of Eric Hoffer. I quoted Hoffer in an earlier issue:

Sometimes it seems that people hear best what we do not say.... A misunderstanding takes place not when people fail to understand each other, but when they sense what is going on in each other’s mind and do not like it.

Nuland says something very similar (though I doubt he was influenced by Hoffer):

When we treat people with kindness, we expect a certain response, and when we treat them with hostility, we expect another — we usually get what we expect. Our problems in relating to people do not as a rule arise from a lack of predictability of the other so much as they do from a lack of our own conscious awareness of the motivations and messages we transmit to him.... Most of the time, an unexpected response from someone is not caused by his mishearing of the message, but by his hearing very clearly a message we did not realize we were sending.2

The sixth chapter of Nuland’s book is an excellent account of the biology of Down Syndrome, followed by a touching case history of Down Syndrome. After reading this chapter, the reader will understand why Nuland’s work is so popular.

Down Syndrome was identified in the 1800s, and finally traced to its genetic origin in 1959. We normally inherit 23 chromosomes from our father, and 23 from our mother, giving us a total of 46 chromosomes. Each set of 23 contains all human genes (about 27,000 genes), so the attempt to map the human genome (the Human Genome Project) can use a set of 23 (a “haploid” set), rather than a set of 46 (a “diploid” set). The chromosomes are called “Chromosome 1, Chromosome 2....” up to Chromosome 22. Chromosome 23 determines one’s gender and is called X or Y; females have two X chromosomes (XX), males have one X and one Y (XY). The chromosomes are numbered from largest to smallest; Chromosome 1 is the largest (has the most base pairs), Chromosome 2 the next largest, etc. (the only exception is Chromosome 21, which is smaller than 22).

“Why do we need 46 chromosomes if 23 contain all human genes?” Perhaps having a double set increases genetic variety, and thus fosters evolution. We can think of our 27,000 genes as 27,000 recipes. Our 27,000 paternal genes contain recipes for the same things as our 27,000 maternal genes; one might say our paternal genes contain recipes for fish soup, strawberry ice cream, and raisin bread, and our maternal genes contain recipes for those same things. But the recipes are slightly different; while the paternal fish soup may have potatoes in it, the maternal version may lack potatoes, and have flour instead. The process of reproduction takes some things from the father, some from the mother; it may take the potatoes from the paternal recipe, and the flour from the maternal recipe. So the next generation isn’t an exact copy of either parent, it’s a mix of both parents.

If the new recipe (the new fish soup) turns out well, it will be favored by natural selection, and passed to future generations. Perhaps the new recipe is so tasty that it gives birth to a chain of restaurants and becomes a closely-guarded secret, like a genetic mutation that leads to a new species. The Human Genome Project determined where each gene, each recipe, is located on a strand of DNA, and what trait it controls.

In normal cell reproduction (mitosis), the 46 chromosomes are doubled (becoming 92), then the cell divides into two cells, and the original number (46) is restored. But in the production of a sex cell (a sperm or egg cell), the doubling is followed by two divisions (two “halvings,” called meiosis I and meiosis II); the first drops the number of chromosomes to 46, the second drops the number of chromosomes to 23. So the result is four cells with 23 chromosomes each, instead of one cell with 46 chromosomes (four “haploid” cells instead of one “diploid” cell). The production of a sperm or egg cell (a “gamete”) is called meiosis. “Meiosis” comes from the Greek “to make small” because it results in a smaller number of chromosomes, while “mitosis” comes from the Greek “thread” because the doubling chromosomes look like threads under a microscope.

Down Syndrome usually results from a failure of paired chromosomes to disjoin in meiosis (“nondisjunction”), causing an extra chromosome. So instead of 23 paternal chromosomes, and 23 maternal, a person with Down Syndrome may have 23 paternal and 24 maternal. Because the extra is in the 21st chromosome, Down Syndrome is sometimes called “Trisomy 21” (normally people have two of chromosome 21, one from the mother, one from the father; in Down Syndrome, there are three of chromosome 21, one from one parent, two from the other parent).

Nuland describes a Connecticut couple that had two children: one with Down Syndrome, one adopted. They were devoted parents. The mother told Nuland, “We wanted them to grow up loving themselves.” The child with Down Syndrome, Kirk, was able to develop in a variety of ways — physical, intellectual, social, etc. He seemed to enjoy life, and his parents seemed to enjoy him. Nuland’s ability to connect with such people, and tell their story, adds much to his book.

Nuland quotes Leibniz: “There are no souls without bodies.” This is the maxim of the rational thinker. Today’s rationalists would go further; they would omit “without bodies,” and simply say, “There are no souls.” Leibniz went as far as one could go at that time, without risking a charge of blasphemy, heresy, atheism. A non-rational thinker, an occult thinker, would say, “There are souls. We can’t fully understand them, or explain them, but they seem to exist independently of any body.”

Nuland also quotes Shakespeare: “Every why hath a wherefore” — that is, every effect has a cause, every phenomenon an explanation. This is another maxim of the rational thinker. Science aims to explain everything, it’s uncomfortable with mysteries, it lacks “negative capability.”

In previous issues, I mentioned diet as a cause of cancer, and stress as a cause of cancer. In Chapter 6, Nuland discusses another cause of cancer: genes. Certain genes have been shown to have a link to certain cancers; for example, genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2 have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

Special numbers
46the number of chromosomes in each human cell
23the number of chromosomes from each parent (in a regular cell), and the total number of chromosomes in a sperm/egg cell
100 trillionthe number of cells in the human body
3 billionthe number of base pairs in human DNA (in each cell)
27,000the number of genes in each human cell

One might say, “Biology teaches that small things are very small, just as astronomy teaches that distant things are very distant, and big things are very big.” The subatomic particles that physics studies are even smaller than the cells and chromosomes that biology studies.

Genes are made up of a series of base pairs, as words are made up of a series of letters. But 99% of base pairs are non-functional, only 1% are part of a gene. Perhaps the non-functional 99% functioned at an earlier stage of evolution — for example, when we lived in water. One might say that DNA is a “pack rat” that can’t bear to throw anything away, its attic is filled with old stuff that it doesn’t use.

Useful Sources
Wikipedia’s introduction to genetics.
An animated introduction to genetics.
NOVA’s 2-hour documentary on the Human Genome Project, available online.

One of the stars of the NOVA documentary is Craig Venter, who was a leading figure in the race to map the human genome. When Venter was about 20, he worked in an Army hospital in Vietnam. Apparently it was a traumatic experience, and he decided to commit suicide by swimming out to sea. When he was a mile out, however, he changed his mind, chose to live, and swam back. I’m reminded of Eric Hoffer, who started to drink poison, then changed his mind, and spat out the poison. I’m also reminded of Evelyn Waugh: shortly after Waugh finished college, he started writing a novel, and showed the opening chapters to a friend, Harold Acton. “Acton’s reply was so coolly dismissive that Waugh immediately burnt his manuscript.” At the same time, Waugh thought he had landed a job with C. K. Scott Moncrieff, who was translating Proust, but the job fell through. “The twin blows were sufficient for [Waugh] to consider suicide. He records that he went down to a nearby beach and, leaving a note with his clothes, walked out to sea. An attack by jellyfish changed his mind, and he returned quickly to the shore.”

The NOVA documentary discusses Iceland, where most of the 280,000 residents are descended from the original Viking settlers. A complete family tree has been constructed, allowing an Icelander to enter his ID number in the national database, and then see his genealogy, going all the way back to 800 AD.

In Chapter 8, “A Child Is Born,” Nuland discusses the birth of one of his children. As in Chapter 1, Nuland gives us too much detail. Personal stories have their place, but the writer must strike a balance between revelation and restraint. When we describe our emotions, we should remember how Joyce described his emotions about his mother’s death: “I wept alone.” A restrained style not only enhances readability, it can also intensify emotion.

In Chapter 8, Nuland says that human beings have a long period of immaturity, of dependence. We’re born with small brains — otherwise we couldn’t exit our mother’s body.

When higher species of primate evolved larger and ever-more-complex brains, the period of postnatal dependency of their offspring lengthened.... For the high primate’s bigger skull to make its way out of the pelvic outlet of the mother, it had to leave the womb at a relatively earlier stage of the brain’s development than did its predecessors.3

The brain with which we enter the world is small compared to an adult brain, but large compared to that of most mammals, hence a human birth is a tight squeeze. Nuland says that our erect, bipedal posture compressed the pelvic region, contributing to the difficulty of a human birth. According to Nuland, a human birth is the most difficult in the animal kingdom.4

Nuland describes Hox genes as “master regulatory genes [which] lay out the general geographic plan of the body.”5 Hox genes aren’t unique to man, they’re part of all animals. The sequence of Hox genes matches the sequence of body parts; the head gene, for example, is above the abdomen gene. Imagine the thrill of discovering that fact! The discoverer must have felt he had peered into the engine room of all organic life, a room that had existed for billions of years, but had never been seen. Perhaps one could narrate the history of modern science by describing individual discoveries — how they were made, how it felt to make them, etc.

Nuland says that the body tries to maintain a status quo, tries to maintain stability in the face of external and internal forces. He terms this status quo “homeostasis,” and he says that much of the body’s activity aims to maintain homeostasis. In Chapter 8, he extends this concept to the mind: “The mind no doubt functions in such ways as to attempt to provide a state of what may be called mental homeostasis.”6 I made a similar point in my book of aphorisms: “Whenever one reaches an extreme of asceticism or of self-indulgence, one’s nature steers one back in the opposite direction. Human nature is self-regulating and avoids extremes.”

In Chapter 9, Nuland discusses the heart. William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of blood in the 17th century, called the heart “a sort of internal animal” that “hath blood, life, sense, and motion.”7 Perhaps each of our organs is “a sort of internal animal.” Perhaps we should go further and say that not only every organ, but every cell, is “a sort of internal animal.” A sperm cell, for example, which looks like a tadpole, and swims around in a woman’s body, dreaming of finding an ovum to fertilize — is it not “a sort of internal animal”? And if our body contains numerous “internal animals,” over which we have no control, doesn’t this affect how we define that little word “I”, doesn’t this affect our sense of identity?

It’s difficult to define the boundaries of “I” and “other.” If we have a child, one might say there’s an animal outside us which isn’t entirely “other,” and if we look at our organs and cells, it seems there are animals within us which aren’t entirely “I.” As boundaries melt away, I merge with the world, I become part of all.

3. Organ Harvesting

A recent cover story in The Weekly Standard describes “organ harvesting” in China — that is, removing organs like kidneys, liver, etc. from prisoners, and selling them.8

In 1999, the Chinese Communist Party declared war against the popular, upstart religion, Falun Gong. Many Falun Gong believers are arrested, and ordered to recant. Those who refuse to recant are often tortured, and sometimes killed. Before they die, however, their organs are sometimes removed and sold. The value of the organs on the international market is highest if they’re removed from a person who’s still alive (anaesthetized but alive). A liver is worth $115,000, a kidney $62,000, a cornea around $30,000. Much of the information in the Weekly Standard article comes from prisoners who managed to escape from labor camps, and make their way to Thailand, Hong Kong, or Australia. Many of these former prisoners describe medical examinations in which the doctor was only interested in examining their organs.

For more information, click here to read a report by two Canadian lawyers, Matas and Kilgour.

The word “harvest” suggests something brutal. But don’t we Americans “harvest” organs also? We’d like to find a more delicate word for what we do, and reserve the word “harvest” for what China does, but it isn’t easy. Nuland’s ninth chapter deals with transplanting a heart. “I always hesitate,” Nuland writes, “before using the word harvest to describe removal of a donor’s organs for transplantation, and yet there is no better term for a process that is so like the gathering of a crop.”9

Since there’s a shortage of organs, many people die because no organ is available. Isn’t there something brutal in this, too? According to Nuland, about 20,000 people die each year who have the potential to be organ donors, but their organs are unused. Some European countries have a policy of “presumed consent,” which means doctors can presume that a brain-dead person, a potential organ donor, consents to the removal of his organs. Is “presumed consent” brutal? Or is the American approach, which allows more people to die for lack of an organ, brutal? If someone close to you was dying for lack of an organ, would you feel differently about this issue? Doubtless China’s approach is too aggressive, allows too much scope for pecuniary motives, and can easily lead to murder-for-profit. We must admit, though, that this is an area in which there are no easy answers.

© L. James Hammond 2008
visit Phlit home page
make a donation via PayPal

1. Perhaps he feels that New Englanders have talked too much about virtue and God and the Bible. back
1B. Thoreau’s advice is similar to the advice that I gave when Obama took office in 2009: “Obama should have taken everyone by surprise and announced, during his inauguration speech, that he was foregoing his salary (and maybe his pension, too).” back
2. Ch. 6, p. 142 back
3. p. 181 back
4. p. 206 back
5. p. 188 back
6. p. 182 back
7. Ch. 9, p. 220. For more on Harvey, consider the biography by Geoffrey Keynes, brother of the economist John Maynard Keynes. back
8. “China’s Gruesome Organ Harvest: The whole world isn't watching. Why not?” by Ethan Gutmann, 11/24/2008, Volume 014, Issue 10 back
9. Ch. 9, p. 235 back