“Damn it, it’s MY Body That’s at Stake”: Autonomy, Sociality, and Imperfect Choices

My family were swapping medical grievances one evening—flawed diagnoses, unwanted side effects, useless procedures. “Damn it, it’s my body that’s at stake” was one protest. I thought how forcefully people can stake out the inviolability of not only their health but “my life,” “my rights,” “my money,” “my free will.” When relatives, employers, government, or banks overstep, we stand by our autonomy. Don’t tread on me.

But we work the other side of this relationship too. We uphold—because we benefit from— social codes and expectations. Rebels who don’t share our values make us nervous. “Take the statin.” “Don’t forget to invite that cousin you don’t like. Family first.” “You’re going to wear that?” “Showing up is eighty percent of the job.”

We carry both the autonomous nonconformist and the social enforcer inside us. The roles take different forms in different cultures but are rooted in our genes. Our autonomy is our expectation that we could get by on our own if we had to, that we can make some of our own decisions, solve problems ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we actually expect to go it alone. We are groupies. The biological term is sociality. Sociality doesn’t refer to being sociable or friendly. It refers to the inherited tendency to form groups, sometimes highly organized ones. Social ants work for the queen, bees signal each other how to get to honey, wolves hunt in packs. Stronger together.

But as inherited traits, autonomy and sociality aren’t so perfect together. Most species inherit more of one than the other. Cats go solo while ants hatch ready-made for their roles as workers, soldiers, or queens. The blessing and the curse for humans is that we have high levels of both. It feels right to us to decide what is best for ourselves while at the same time we’re reluctant to risk losing our social support. The result is ambivalence. “Should I take the statin/invite the cousin/change my shirt/get myself to work?”

Such ambivalence, says sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, is the turmoil of the human spirit. When loyalty to our clan, friends, or religion clashes with our concern for our well-being, we may feel angry or sad or confused or frightened or betrayed. Near the close of the fifth chapter of Sociobiology (2000 edition), Wilson summarizes the dilemma, surprisingly, with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic from 300 B.C. E. Here, the god Krishna steers the chariot of the reluctant prince Arjuna to an impending battle in which Arjuna’s relatives and close friends will be fighting not with Arjuna but for the other side. Arjuna wavers. Wilson writes about

ambivalence as a way of life in social creatures. Like Arjuna faltering on the Field of Righteousness, the individual is forced to make imperfect choices based on irreconcilable loyalties—between the “rights” and “duties” of self and those of family, tribe, and other units of selection, each of which evolves its own code of honor. No wonder the human spirit is in constant turmoil. Arjuna agonized, “Restless is the mind, O Krishna, turbulent, forceful, and stubborn.”

Krishna-Arjuna-battle (hinduhumanrights.info)

The god Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, turns as Arjuna hesitates on the Field of Righteousness (hinduhumanrights.info)

I first read this passage from Wilson years ago but it comes back to me when I hear protests and arguments. We are Arjuna, come to the field of life with two strengths that work to our advantage but that also get in each other’s way. I understand people better, myself included, when I listen for the rumbling, ageless tension of self versus group beneath our “imperfect choices” and “irreconcilable loyalties.”

Breath: Divine Gas In a Smart Body

The word breath most often refers to the air we pull in to and pump out of our lungs (or to the action of doing so) as in “Take a deep breath.” But we also give the same word loftier qualities in phrases such as “the breath of life” and in practices like yoga that view the breath as a source of health and peace. Other traditions and languages also have words for breath in both these ordinary and spiritual senses, such as Latin spiritus, Hebrew ruach, and Chinese qi.

breath spirit (soundofheart.org)


But what about the breathing body itself? Unless we are wheezing or short of breath, we usually take the smooth coordination of our lungs, diaphragm, membranes, and blood cells as unremarkable. But let’s refocus our wonderment for a moment. The air is, when you come down to it, just a mix of gasses, but our body’s ingenious respiration of them is a process to appreciate.

We breathe in air because it contains one gas that we must have: oxygen. We know that. Less familiar, though, is the step-down system that has evolved to make the most of the fact that, like all gasses, oxygen spreads out from wherever there is more of it to where there is less of it. Thanks to this step-down dispersal and our flowing  blood, we move oxygen from the air outside of us to every cell that is waiting for it, all several trillion—that’s 000,000,000,000—of them.

Why oxygen? Its electrons are arranged in such a way that it interacts eagerly and often with other elements. It’s a potent extrovert. The body’s cells may get their nourishment from food molecules but not unless they also have oxygen handy to break those molecules down. That would be like our eating dinner without any acid in our stomach to digest it. No nourishment. Without oxygen, cells go hungry.

But a little oxygen goes a long way. The numbers surprised me. Only about twenty percent of the air that we breathe is oxygen. The rest is nitrogen and a percent or two of other gasses. And of that twenty percent of oxygen that we inhale, we actually use only about a quarter of it. The rest goes out again. Our inhalation is twenty percent oxygen; we exhale fifteen percent.

Once it is in our lungs, oxygen must get across the lung’s membrane to the blood stream that will move it around the body. The amount of oxygen in the lung might not seem like much, but it is more than remains in the oxygen-depleted blood that is returning towards the lungs through the veins. So the new oxygen steps down across the thin membrane to the empty hemoglobin molecules in the blood cells for the ride to the rest of the body.

As this convoy of oxygenated blood flows near, say, a finger, the oxygen detaches from the hemoglobin, steps down once more across a membrane to a cell itself, and goes to work on the food particles. In the process, extrovert that it is, oxygen combines to form unusable carbon dioxide, crosses the cell membrane back out to some empty passing hemoglobin that just dropped off new oxygen elsewhere, rides the vein back to the lungs, gets off again, and is exhaled back out to air. Like riding the bus you took to work back home at the end of the day.

I argue for the wonderment of a distribution system that pulls in air-borne oxygen in an endless rhythm, arranges for it to disperse itself across strategic membranes, loads it on to the blood for transport to a million million cells that it will help nourish, after which it returns the way it came in. Our stunning respiration makes oxygen look good—even divine.


Chet Raymo on Santa Claus, Hot Stoves, and the Blooming, Buzzing Confusion

We cannot live without some sorts of make-believe in our lives. Without made-up maps of the world, life is a buzzing, blooming confusion. Some elements of our mental maps (Santa Claus) satisfy emotional or aesthetic inner needs; other elements of our mental maps (a hot stove) satisfy intellectual curiosity about the world out there. We get in trouble when the two kinds of maps are confused, when we objectify elements of make-believe solely on the basis of inner need.

The passage is from Chet Raymo’s book Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection between Science and Religion (1998). Raymo is Professor Emeritus of Physics, raised as a Catholic, with a religious sensibility alongside a firm skepticism. He recently stopped posting on his blog, Science Musings, but the inspiring archives remain open.

We all carry around mental maps of the world—images and words that guide us—that should not be confused with the real world itself. Raymo writes about the two kinds of entries on our maps. Some entries reflect our neediness, since we were children, for emotional comfort, simple explanations, and a sense of our own importance. Santa Claus is on the map for many children. When we’re adults, other superstitions, miracles and astrology often take Santa’s place. Such beliefs help many of us make sense of the world. They also help us feel we have a place in it, for there is nothing worse than thinking that we are only insignificant specks.

As Raymo puts it, these are beliefs about what we yearn for. In contrast, we also put on our maps more objectively realistic items that we learn about. These include the facts that stoves can burn us and that dinosaurs and humans did not walk the earth at the same time.

Artificial island in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean (pinterest)

An artificial island in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean

But—and here’s what makes the book so valuable—Raymo is not saying simply that we should value the learn items and let go of the yearn ones. For a person who values only objective knowledge runs the risk of becoming cold and arrogant. We need a mix of worthwhile knowledge along with an appreciation of what we don’t know and yearn to understand.

Raymo’s central metaphor for all this is that our map resembles an island in a sea of mystery. The island is our knowledge and the sea is the actual, mysterious, and infinite universe around us. On our island, “We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and build ourselves room to grow. And still the mystery surrounds us. It laps at our shores. It permeates the land.” When such thinkers as Galileo and Einstein illuminate some of the mystery, that mystery sweeps in on a tidal wave and overwhelms much of what we thought we had known for sure. So we rebuild.

As we expand the island and extend its shores, the border between the land and the sea, instead of shrinking, grows longer. That is, the more we know about the objective world, the more that the mysteries of existence beckon the scientists, artists, and other creative people who are open to them. Raymo’s book appeared in 1998, but his metaphor of this extended shoreline fits well with recent discoveries of the many planets circling other stars and with the neuro-imaging of the brain. Both advances in knowledge have, instead of dulling our sense of mystery, excited and extended it.

Where on the island, Raymo asks, do we find the best and most creative work being done? At the shoreline. “We are at our human best as creatures of the shore, with one foot on the hard ground of fact and one foot in the mystery of the sea.”

The stance describes Raymo himself. And it reminds me that to relish both our knowledge of living things along with our sense of the mystery of being alive is a good place to be.