Ghost in the Machine

I’ve been thinking about identity. I came across this:

[O]nly ten percent of the DNA present within our bodies belongs to our own cells; the rest resides within the ten to one hundred trillion bacteria and other organisms of several hundred species which inhabit our bodies.¹

Which makes me think of that infamous scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien:




Should we identify that character as Kane (played by the actor John Hurt) or as Baby Extraterrestrial (playing itself)? Which, I suppose, is simply another way of asking: who are the aliens in Alien?




Then there’s this:

A technique based on carbon-14 dating devised by Swedish neurologist Jonas Frisén has led to the first accurate estimates of the amount of time it takes for various human body parts to regenerate. For example, our gut lining is replaced every five days; the skin’s outer layer every two weeks; red blood cells every 120 days; bones every ten years; and muscles between the ribs every 15.1 years.¹

So it seems that even the small fraction of 54-year-old Jim that is not about to burst from his stomach and scare the dickens out of everyone — the fraction that is genetically human, in other words — is different, at the cellular level, from the “Jim” of age 45 or 32 or 17.


Which reminds me of something I read in grad school, a paragraph in the ancient biographer Plutarch’s Life of Theseus. You remember Theseus from mythology: the Athenian hero who entered the Labyrinth on Crete with a sword and ball of twine to kill the man-eating Minotaur:

The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus. They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became a standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel.²

A question that might be answered this way:

The ship of Theseus does not really exist as the ship of Theseus. There is no exact definition of what is meant by the ship of Theseus. It exists as a collection of sensations but not as an object. Yes, if you kick it you will feel pain in your toes … But these are all just sensations that one learns to associate with something we call the “ship of Theseus.” Human beings combine these sensations and form the ship of Theseus … Since we all agree with this naming convention, we do not commit each other to insane asylums. Nevertheless, the existence of the ship of Theseus is an illusion.³

Which suggests that the next time you see me on the street, you should cry out not “Hey, Jim!” but “Hey, you, collection-of-atoms known as Jim!” Adding out of politeness, “And you, too, Bacteroides fragilisPaenibacillus vortex …”


Seriously, though, consider what goes along with a belief that at the core of each person’s identity, there is something fixed and immutable. Something essential.


Years ago, I had a good friend with whom, sadly, I’ve lost touch. She was lively, creative, intense. And I remember how often she reverted to this common conception of identity: the self hidden under many accretions of dross, layers of useless and even harmful gunk which it is each individual’s challenge to peel back, like the layers of an onion, in order to uncover the true and original and perfect “me” at the center of my being.




But is anything human perfect or perfectible? Well, let’s find out. Here, welcome to my laboratory, where my associates and I are genetically modifying human embryos to eliminate scourges and afflictions that have long prevented humans from reaching their full potential — frown lines, for example, and male pattern baldness.




Also, while we’re at it, “deviant” sexuality, “excessive” skin pigmentation, “potentially subversive” anti-authoritarian tendencies, and the like. All those crusty, impure layers that imprison the pure, unadulterated self.


Or we could take a different approach. Employ a different metaphor.


In Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) 95, Mary Douglas writes:

Granted that disorder spoils pattern, it also provides the material of pattern. Order implies restriction; from all possible materials, a limited selection has been made and from all possible relations a limited set has been used. So disorder by definition is unlimited, no pattern has  been realised in it, but its potential for patterning is indefinite. This is why, though we seek to create order, we do not simply condemn disorder. We recognize that it is destructive to existing patterns; also that it has potentiality. It symbolises both danger and power.

Think about what Douglas is saying in the context of where we were and where we are and where we will soon be. Let me put it to you in the form of a question.


In a world like this …


Dense forest.



… might it make sense to value order, stability, constancy, and purity over their opposites?


And what about in a world like this?





Which leads me to my proposed metaphor. Why not take the body itself — in all its wondrous complexity and heterogeneity, its transience, its teeming community of symbionts, its purity and impurity, its orderly disorder — as our model for an understanding of the “soul.” Of identity.


Because we’ve now had more than a mere glimpse of where we’re headed, the end of this road we’re on. Of where striving for flawlessness is leading us. And in that machine, there may be no space even for a wispy ghost.






¹ Michael Allen Fox, “A New Look at Personal Identity,” Philosophy Now (Aug/Sept 2015).


² Plutarch, Life of Theseus 23.1, in Bernadotte Perrin, ed., Plutarch’s Lives (Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1914)


³ Noson S. Yonofsky, “The Ship of Theseus and the Question of Identity,” Utne Reader (November 2013).


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