Although I consider myself a benevolent tyrant, some of my cells have turned against me. Mutinous, they were swayed by the propaganda of a virus and started churning out capsids rather than helping me type this essay. Which leaves me sitting at a YMCA snack room table snerking, goo leaking down my throat and out my nose.
Unconsciously, I take violent reprisal against the traitors. I send my enforcers to put down the revolt – they cannibalize the still-living rebels, first gnawing the skin, then devouring the organs that come spilling out. Then the defector dies.
My cells are also expected to commit suicide whenever they cease to be useful for my grand designs. Any time a revolutionary loses the resolve to commit suicide, my enforcers put it down. Unless my internal surveillance state fails to notice in time – the other name for a cell that doesn’t want to commit suicide is “cancer,” and even the most robust immune system might be stymied by cancer when the traitor’s family grows too large.
Worse is when the rebels “metastasize,” like contemporary terrorists. This word signifies that the family has sent sleeper agents to infiltrate the world at large, attempting to develop new pockets of resistance in other areas. Even if my enforcers crush one cluster of rebellion, others could flourish unchecked.
I know something that perhaps they don’t – if their rebellion succeeds, they will die. A flourishing cancer sequesters so many resources that the rest of my body would soon prove too weak to seek food and water, causing every cell inside of me to die.
But perhaps they’ve learned my kingdom’s vile secret – rebel or not, they will die. As with any hereditary monarchy, a select few of my cells are privileged above all others. And it’s not the cells in my brain that rule.
Every “somatic cell” is doomed. These cells compose my brain and body. Each has slight variations from “my” genome – every round of cell division introduces random mutations, making every cell’s DNA slightly different from its neighbors’.
The basic idea behind Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is that each of these cells “wants” for its genome to pass down through the ages. Dawkins argued that familial altruism is rational because any sacrifice bolsters the chances for a very similar genome to propagate. Similarly, each somatic cell is expected to sacrifice itself to boost the odds for a very similar genome carried by the gametes.
Only gametes – the heralded population of germ cells in our genitalia – can possibly see their lineage continue. All others are like the commoners who (perhaps foolishly) chant their king or kingdom’s name as they rush into battle to die. I expect them to show absolute fealty to me, their tyrant. Apoptosis – uncomplaining suicide – was required of many before I was even born, like when cells forming the webbing between my fingers slit their own bellies in dramatic synchronized hara-kiri.
Any evolutionary biologist could explain that each such act of sacrifice was in a cell’s mathematical best interest. But if I were a conscious somatic cell, would I submit so easily? Or do I owe some sliver of respect to the traitors inside me?
The world is a violent place. I’m an extremely liberal vegan environmentalist – yet it takes a lot of violence to keep me going.
From Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s The Human Advantage:
Animals that we are, we must face, every single day of our lives, the consequences of our most basic predicament: we don’t do photosynthesis. For lack of the necessary genes, we don’t just absorb carbon from the air around us and fix it as new bodily matter with a little help from sunlight. To survive, we animals have to eat other living organisms, whether animal, vegetable, or fungus, and transform their matter into ours.
And yet the violence doesn’t begin with animals. Photosynthesis seems benign by comparison – all you’d need is light from the sun! – unless you watch a time-lapsed video of plant growth in any forest or jungle.
The sun casts off electromagnetic radiation without a care in the world, but the amount of useful light reaching any particular spot on earth is limited. And plants will fight for it. They race upwards, a sprint that we sometimes fail to notice only because they’ve adapted a timescale of days, years, and centuries rather than our seconds, hours, and years. They reach over competitors’ heads, attempting to grab any extra smidgen of light … and starving those below. Many vines physically strangle their foes. Several trees excrete poison from their roots. Why win fair if you don’t have to? A banquet of warm sunlight awaits the tallest plant left standing.
And so why, in such a violent world, would it be worthwhile to be vegan? After all, nothing wants to be eaten. Sure, a plant wants for animals to eat its fruit – fruits and animals co-evolved in a system of gift exchange. The plant freely offers fruit, with no way of guaranteeing recompense, in hope that the animal might plant its seeds in a useful location.
But actual pieces of fruit – the individual cells composing an apple – probably don’t want to be eaten, no more than cancers or my own virus-infected cells want to be put down for the greater good.
A kale plant doesn’t want for me to tear off its leaves and dice them for my morning ramen.
But by acknowledging how much sacrifice it takes to allow for us to be typing or reading or otherwise reaping the pleasures of existence, I think it’s easier to maintain awe. A sense of gratitude toward all that we’ve been given. Most humans appreciate things more when we think they cost more.
We should appreciate the chance to be alive. It costs an absurd amount for us to be here.
But, in the modern world, it’s possible to have a wonderful, rampantly hedonistic life as a vegan. Why make our existence cost more when we don’t have to? A bottle of wine tastes better when we’re told that it’s $45-dollar and not $5-dollar wine, but it won’t taste any better if you tell somebody “It’s $45-dollar wine, but you’ll have to pay $90 for it.”
Personally, I’d think it tasted worse, each sip with the savor of squander.