The Metropolis Within

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Your body is a giant metropolis. Sit back, close your eyes, and imagine what it might be like in there. RBCs aren’t the only ones traveling your body’s streets, canals and back alleys. They share the stream with billions of functional cells and molecules such as hormones, transmitters, white blood cells. They all have jobs to do (or lives to lead) and they swim or float through the blood stream, peacefully doing them.

The cells that don’t travel are also busy. Someone has to produce all those magic molecules with six-syllable names. The ones that open and close blood vessels, that soothe some cells and excite others, that break down food and build new tissues out of it, make us happy or sad and do everything else that our body/minds do.

The more science learns about our bodies’ chemistry, the more incredible it all seems. Each new discovery opens up a dozen new questions. A living body is a whole world; each organ is like a whole city. Each blood vessel is a river, and each capillary is like a Venetian canal lined with thousands of living houses called cells.

Do you know what your brain is doing right now? Brain cells don’t just sit up there thinking – they produce dozens of transmitters. The liver might be even busier – Wikipedia lists about 25 proteins the liver produces, even while it’s breaking down and detoxifying waste products and chemicals.  Nearly all the cells seem to have businesses like that.

Could such things happen mindlessly?  It’s hard for me to believe. To use the example I know the most about, how do insulin molecules find glucose molecules and bring them to body cells? How does a molecule “find” something? Are molecules smart?

Glucose metabolism is just one function out of thousands of equally complex actions that our bodies perform.  To paraphrase the Buddha, if you’re not completely amazed by life, you are not paying attention.

Think about the immune system, our bodies’ protective interface with the outside world. It identifies and neutralizes life forms that don’t belong in the body; it heals and repairs damage from injury, aging, or infection. How did immune cells learn those skills? Where did they come from?

Bodies as communities

The metropolis within has layers upon layers of wonder that can only be seen with a strong microscope. Each cell contains whole families of “organelles” (“little organs”). A cell is like a community of microorganisms working together.

According to the late, great biologist Lynn Margulis, each organelle was originally an independent organism, a group of molecules living on its own. They joined forces to make something bigger and better. They made communities of themselves, which eventually became us.

How did they do that? According to the University of California at San Diego website Life in the Universe, “A reasonable way to envision the origin of Life is as the initial associations of cooperating molecules.”

Have you got that?  Molecules cooperate with each other. Think about it. The world is alive.

No travel guide to the metropolis within would be complete without  bacteria.  Human bodies actually include more bacterial than human cells.  Most are in the intestines, but others live out in the country. They perform all kinds of vital functions for us, like processing foods our human digestion can’t handle.

All this biology  discredits the idea of a unitary, separate self. Scientifically and spiritually,we aren’t individuals. We are communities of trillions of organisms, both outside and within our “human” cells. Our bodies are parts of larger communities of people and people are parts of a larger communities of living things.

The communitarian nature of life might be what my mystic friends mean when they say “You are God.” You are the world; there’s no place where you leave off and the world starts. The skin may appear to be such a divider, but the separation is an illusion. Trillions of “outside” organisms live inside our skin, and we create and influence the world outside our skins every moment. Our vision includes TV cameras; our memory includes libraries and the Internet. The separate self is just a convenient fiction for receiving mail.

These communities didn’t develop quickly. It’s been more than three billion years  since the first things we call “life” appeared on Earth, and the molecules started coming together long before that. And there was a time before molecules, before stars and Earths. Atoms had to come together to make them, and physicists say there was a time before atoms, too.

The universe seems to be constantly evolving, constantly giving birth to itself. Looked at this way, you could say God creates everything, just incredibly slowly. You could also say the world makes itself, and everything in it is alive.  Either way, we’re lucky to be here and be part of the growing. Don’t waste it.  Enjoy your stay.


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One Response to The Metropolis Within

  1. Donna Vogel says:

    On the artificiality betwen the boundary between our bodies and the world: Here on earth, nothing is truly solid. Like all matter, our skin contains vast amounts of empty space. At the atomic level, not much of a barrier.

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