Threshold: The Crisis of Western Culture
Chapter 4: Unnatural Selection
I fear our mistakes far more than the strategy of our enemies.
Thucydides (47–400 b.c.), Pericles’ Funeral Oration
Chapter 4: Unnatural Selection
Every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning …
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles” (1841)
I remember the German toilets. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why they’d manufactured them the way they did. From the toilets in the trains to the toilets in older houses to the toilets in many of the older/cheaper hotels I stayed in during the 1970s and 1980s, German toilets were absolutely weird.
Instead of sitting over a bowl filled with water, into which one would poop, thus instantly dropping the stuff into water where its odor couldn’t be smelled, with a German toilet you sat about eight to ten inches above a dry porcelain platform. At the very rear of the toilet was a water drain of about three inches in diameter. When you pooped, your excrement lay on the platform. You could smell it throughout the room. You could poke it with a stick or carefully examine it, if you were so inclined (I never was), or even scoop it up if, for example, your doctor needed to examine it. Or for heaven knows what other reason.
When you pulled the flush lever (or the chain attached to the tank high up on the wall), the water would flush in from the front and wash the stuff off the platform, into the little hole in the back, and down the drain. But until you pulled that lever or chain, there it was for you to see.
I was baffled. I thought maybe these toilets were indicative of some sort of a national neurosis: a poop fetish. Maybe the Germans were scatologically obsessed. Maybe Hitler had ordered these toilets built out of some dimension of his overall mental illness.
Then, over time, I noticed all those toilets vanishing. I lived in Germany for a year in the late 1980s, and by then these toilets were mostly gone (now you find them only in the oldest of buildings, and even there they’ve usually been replaced with systems that we’d recognize here). And that was when I learned why the Germans (and many other European countries) had had these “platform”-style toilets dating all the way back to Thomas Crapper’s popularization of the flush toilet in the late 1800s.
It turns out that most mammals—including humans—typically have some sort of intestinal parasite. The smallest and most helpful are the famous acidophilus bacteria that help our guts digest food and absorb nutrients, but they are invisible. The largest and most obnoxious are the various worms, with the largest and most obvious of these being the hookworm and the tapeworm.
Up until the mid-twentieth century, there weren’t many drugs that would kill intestinal parasites in people without pretty severe (and sometimes even fatal) side effects, and food sanitation was such that even if a person did kill off all his intestinal parasites, he’d just get re-infected. On the other hand, there were a number of well-known ways to hold down (no pun intended) the number of parasites, to reduce the intensity and effect of their residence in one’s gut. Mainly these were referred to as “purges,” mostly harsh laxatives such as the herb senna, combined with a sharp bitter (black walnut hull was one of the most common), which would cause the worms to let go from the intestinal wall and thus be flushed out with everything else as the laxative did its job.
So the “lay and display” or “continental shelf” toilets actually had a purpose. People would take a look at their poop, and if they saw a visible mass of hookworms, roundworms, etc., or a lot of the rice-like segments indicating a tapeworm infection, they’d do a purge that week, which would hold down the worm population for a few months.
Now that our food supply is “clean” of these parasites, and we have a pretty good number of antibiotic-class drugs that are also antiparasitic, worms in the gut are rare, and the need to examine one’s stool has vanished. Which would seem like a very good development.
But, it turns out, we may have traded one problem for another.
Every culture has a story about it. The main story of modern, literate, technological culture—regardless of where it is in the world, the color of its people, or the language it speaks—is that humans are a species apart. We were uniquely created separate from all other animals, as in the Jewish and Christian stories of a creator who made us from the soil. We were brought here from Sirius, the Dog Star, according to the Dogon tribe in Africa. We descended from the sun, we are fallen gods, we sprang fully formed from the bud of a sacred lotus.
In virtually every creation story, humans are not part of nature. We’re separate, apart, unique, different, and not bound by the rules of nature (although we very much have our own rules).
We wear clean clothes, pride ourselves on clean homes and offices, keep “dirt” (nature) away from our bodies, out of our food, and away from our homes. Our food comes from boxes and freezer cases and salad bags. Because, of course, we are not part of nature; we’re separate from it.
This mentality is killing us off at levels from the most macro (global climate change that may render our planet uninhabitable) to the micro (our individual bodies).
The best estimates of a variety of scientists and scientific bodies is that for somewhere between twenty and one hundred years our population load on the planet has been so great that it’s unsustainable, destroying the biosphere that supports us. But during that same time, odd things have been happening with our individual bodies. Three generations ago, only 1 in 10,000 people had inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease was rare, and multiple sclerosis was virtually unknown to most people. Today 1 in 250 people has IBS, Crohn’s disease is a widespread concern, and many people know somebody who has or is related to somebody who has MS. Why? We see similar numbers with asthma, lupus, and a whole host of other autoimmune disorders.
Turns out it may all have to do with parasites. Bugs, dirt, and—most amazing—worms.
Gastroenterologist Dr. Joel Weinstock, back in the 1990s, was editing a book on parasitic worms, also known as helminths. As Moises Velasquez-Manoff documented in the June 29, 2008, New York Times Magazine, Dr. Weinstock noticed that as humans have become more and more successful at ridding themselves of parasites—particularly intestinal worms—we have developed a whole host of conditions that seem to be associated with inflammation (particularly of the bowel).
Noting that “We’re part of our environment; we’re not separate from it,” he wondered if reintroducing into people’s guts some of the less pathogenic parasites with which humans coexisted during evolution could resolve some of these conditions. Using Trichuris suis, a worm endemic to pigs—and commonly infecting, without complications, pig farmers—Dr. Weinstock and others conducted a number of studies over several years in which they infected people suffering from a wide variety of diseases with Tricuris.
The results were nothing short of startling. As Velasquez-Manoff reported in the New York Times Magazine:
After ingesting 2500 microscopic T. suis eggs at 3-week intervals for 24 weeks, 23 of 29 Crohn’s patients responded positively. Twenty-one went into complete remission. In the second study, 13 of 30 ulcerative colitis patients improved compared with 4 in a 24-person placebo group. … Trials using T. suis eggs on patients with multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s and hay fever are beginning in the United States, Australia, and Denmark, respectively. In Germany, scientists are planning studies on asthma and food allergies. Other European scientists, meanwhile, plan to replicate many of these experiments with Necator americanus, a human hookworm.
Meanwhile, a British scientist—Dr. David Pritchard of the University of Nottingham—working in Papua New Guinea in the 1980s noticed that people there were commonly infected with a bit larger and more commonly considered “gross” parasite, the Necator americanus, or common hookworm. This worm enters the body through food and, more commonly, the skin—people often get it from bathing in infected water or walking barefoot on dirt infected with the worm’s larvae. The larvae burrow through the skin, get into the bloodstream, and migrate to the lungs, where they get coughed up and then swallowed. When they hit the small intestine they turn into full-blown worms, which attach themselves to the wall of the small intestine. Necator americanus was one of the more common parasites among Germans (and other Europeans, and Americans) up until the past few generations; a severe infection with this worm (which was rare) can cause anemia and even death.
But, Dr. Pritchard noticed, the people infected with it had virtually none of the autoimmune diseases such as asthma and hay fever that had come to plague England since that nation went on a sanitation binge after World War II. Apparently the worms produced a substance that modulated the human immune system, toning it down enough to keep our bodies from attacking the worms and, in the process, our own cells and organs (the definition of an autoimmune disease).
So, as Elizabeth Svoboda documented in the July 1, 2008, New York Times[xvii]:
In 2004, David Pritchard applied a dressing to his arm that was crawling with pin-size hookworm larvae, like maggots on the surface of meat. He left the wrap on for several days to make sure that the squirming freeloaders would infiltrate his system.
“The itch when they cross through your skin is indescribable,” he said. “My wife was a bit nervous about the whole thing.”
After infecting himself to demonstrate the relative safety of the parasites, he got a grant from the British National Health Service to do a double-blind placebo-controlled trial on allergy-suffering volunteers, who were given capsules containing either worms or sugar. The results were startling. As Svoboda wrote in the Times:
Trial participants raved about their allergy symptoms disappearing. Word about the study soon appeared online among chronic allergy sufferers, and a Yahoo group on “helminthic therapy” sprung up.
“Many of the people who were given a placebo have requested worms, and many of the people with worms have elected to keep them,” Dr. Pritchard said.
Svoboda notes that as the result of the publicity surrounding Pritchard’s successful 2006 clinical trials, “clinics” catering to Americans and Europeans who want to be “cured” of their asthma, hay fever, or other autoimmune diseases by being infected with hookworms are springing up in Third World countries.
The fact is that we are not divine creations, we didn’t land here on a spaceship, and we’re not a species apart from all others on planet Earth. There’s ten times as much bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic DNA in your body as there is DNA from your cells. We evolved on this planet along with every other form of life, and we are designed to be a seamless part of the whole, a thread in the delicate web of life.
When we remove ourselves from that web of life, we do so at our own peril.
The World in a Bottle
When I was a kid, my mom kept a terrarium in the house (along with a dozen fish tanks, a few snakes, a couple of dogs, and a cat). The fish just swam around in circles and swarmed for the food when we opened the top. The snakes went after the mice Mom fed them, when necessary, making all of us so queasy that she eventually gave them away. But the terrarium was the most interesting—lots of plants, a few frogs, a turtle. If we didn’t feed anything, life generally seemed to go on. The frogs and turtle ate the plants (and the occasional insect—mostly fruit flies—that came to inhabit the realm). The plants were fertilized by the frog and turtle poop. Mom told us that if we could just figure out the right ratios, we could seal the thing off entirely, as the plants exhaled oxygen, which the frogs and turtle inhaled, and everything would be in balance and the terrarium could live forever.
In the late 1950s, when I was around six or seven years old, my dad looked into putting a false ceiling into our basement and covering it with six inches of dirt from the backyard to create a poor man’s fallout shelter for us if the Soviets decided to nuke Lansing, Michigan. I remember Mom speculating that if there were an attack, maybe only the terrarium would survive.
A half-century later, a world in a bottle arrived on our doorstep. It came from Tucson, Arizona, where a small company named Ecosphere Associates, Inc.,[xviii] had come as close as anybody to creating the self-sustaining biosphere my mom imagined when I was a child.
The blown-glass bulb is completely sealed—no air or water can get in or out. Inside is a world that is mostly water, with an inch or so of atmospheric air on the top. There’s some sand, and a branch of some long-dead plant that provides a home for the tiny shrimp that live in the Ecosphere, as well as a base on which algae can grow. The power source for the life in this little package is the sun. If you leave the Ecosphere in the dark, there won’t be enough photosynthesis for the algae to convert carbon into plant matter, providing the oxygen and the organic base of the food chain of bacteria, multi-cell microorganisms, and shrimp. The animals, in turn, consume the carbon (carbohydrates: carbon-based plant material) and exhale carbon dioxide, recycling the carbon back into the environment for the bacteria and plants to use, with a little assist from the sun and chlorophyll, to replace that eaten by the shrimp.
This is a miniature and home-friendly variation on the giant Biosphere and Biosphere II projects that ran in the Arizona desert during the past two decades. The Biosphere projects produced a wealth of scientific data (as well as no small amount of psychological and sociological information), and ultimately demonstrated that we still have a long way to go before we can produce an entirely sealed yet self-sustaining living environment. Like my desktop Ecosphere, which will die out in about a year, the Biosphere II couldn’t work without a certain amount of “leakage” into and from the external environment.[xix]
There is, however, one sealed biosphere that, at least so far, has worked. Very little leaks from it, and very little (relative to its mass) is added to it annually, yet it has sustained life for billions of years, and presumably will continue to do so for at least ten to fifteen billion more years (when its energy source, the Sun, will explode). That, of course, is the Earth.
With a single exception, everything on Earth is food for something else. It starts at the smallest and most basic level. Research published in 2007 in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems (an online journal)[xx] documents rock samples found four miles beneath the surface of the oceans, where microbes have eaten volcanic rock, leaving thread-like tracks. The microbes absorb the minerals in the rocks, and then become food for other microscopic life up the oceanic food chain, leading to small crustaceans, then to small fish, ultimately ending up in large fish such as salmon.
As Dr. Hubert Staudigel, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told BBC News Online’s science editor David Whitehouse,[xxi] “These organisms are the bottom of the food chain.” He added, “We’ve documented how extensive these microscopic organisms are eating into volcanic rock, leaving worm-like tracks that look like someone has drilled their way in.” Whitehouse reported: “Some scientists believe that most of the life on Earth, in terms of the quantity of organic matter, may not live on the surface of our world, but be in the form of microbes in rock in the Earth’s crust.” Those microbes are the first of the great cyclers of minerals and other nutrients, shoveling them into the food chain.
Salmon, in turn, are eaten by bears, who then—as the old joke goes—poop in the woods. Thus, minerals from miles deep in distant ocean floors are found as vital nutrients strengthening trees and shrubs hundred of miles inland from the ocean near salmon-run streams. Life on Earth is a giant cycle—in this case from bacteria on the ocean floor to plants growing in the forest to the animals that then live on those plants, which eventually die and become nutrients for the forest floor, which is then eventually washed back out to the ocean and reabsorbed into mineral formations to one day again become bacterial food.
Of all the “great laws” in nature, this is the greatest: “Everything’s waste is something else’s food.” At first blush, it seems that this is simply instinctive or programmed into every living thing, but what this Great Law really demonstrates is the power of homeostasis, balance among different elements of a complex system. And the history of the planet demonstrates how alterations in homeostatic systems can produce dramatic results.
To truly appreciate the scope of this law, we must extend it from the food chain where its cause-and-effect progression is easily marked, and look at the more intangible relationships between human beings. Everything we produce must, in some way, be reconsumable, reusable, or be food for another. We do not live in a vacuum. To achieve the homeostasis the planet is currently struggling to maintain, every single thing we put into the environment, whether it be a piece of trash or a piece of legislation, a product or waste from an industrial or household process, has an impact.
The Dalai Lama
During the autumn of 1999, I was invited along with a group of people to spend a week in Dharamsala, India, with the Dalai Lama. We stayed near his home and met with His Holiness every day for most of the week, discussing ways in which the world could be made to work for all. The second day, the twenty of us met without His Holiness and debated what we should discuss with him over the following three days. One of our members, Brother Wayne Teasdale, brought up the topic of Tibet, saying that Tibet was essentially a litmus test for each of us.
When the Chinese took over Tibet there were two million more Tibetans in the country than there are now. One million of them have apparently been murdered or imprisoned by the Chinese, and at least a second million have been displaced—deported, vanished. Brother Wayne encouraged us to take some sort of political stand on this issue, and we debated it hotly, finally deciding we’d offer to support a boycott of Chinese-made goods until Tibet was again free.
The next morning we got together with the Dalai Lama, and told him that we’d decided we would be pleased as a group to endorse a boycott of Chinese-manufactured goods or of ownership of stock in companies that did business in China until China changed its policy toward Tibet. It could be like the boycott of South Africa that was apparently so effective at changing that government and its system of Apartheid.
The Dalai Lama smiled and nodded. He said, as I recall, that this was not a new dispute, but one that went back almost a thousand years. So that we had to realize that the actions we took in that room might have far-reaching consequences. Anything we did might not be realized for ten, twenty, or fifty generations down the road. He pointed out that all over China there were now little communities where factories had been set up, and people were employed there making things that were being sold in the United States and Europe. A new balance had emerged. If we boycotted those products, then those factories would close and those people would be out of work and they might go hungry; there might even be famine and starvation in China.
One of our group pointed out that, yes, thousands of people in South Africa starved and died as a consequence of the boycott there. But sometimes, he suggested, that’s the price you must pay for freedom.
And the Dalai Lama smiled and nodded and said that therein lay the problem. As I recall his words, they were to the effect that: “The problem is that if we take an action in this room that causes even one child in China, my enemy, to starve, it’s too high a price to pay for the freedom of my people.”
There was stunned silence.
And in that moment I got it. Though all my life I had been giving lip service to the notion that we are all one, somewhere back there, probably during the sixties, during the anti–Vietnam War movement, I had come up with the idea that when institutional evil reached a certain threshold, we had to draw a circle in the sand and say, “There’s us in here and that’s them out there.”
But the Dalai Lama had just come along with a little metaphorical whisk broom and brushed away the circle. He’d said, in effect, “Sorry, there’s no circle, there’s no them. It’s all us. Even when we are killing them, it’s all us. If we’re going to find a solution it’s going to have to be a solution for all of us.”
In this regard, you could say that even in a world so full of out-of-balance cultures, there are numerous ongoing efforts to restore us to homeostasis. Many of these efforts are based on lessons learned from ancient cultures—societies that through thousands of years of trial and error learned that all of their waste (and actions) must somehow become something else’s food, and ideally food that helped sustain a species that sustained them.
The End of the World
Which brings us back to those circular systems: we live in one massive interrelated system, and that is the only way it can work. The Earth is a finite space, surrounded by such a thin layer of breathable air (the troposphere) that if you were to lay it down sideways, you could walk from where you are now to the edge of the life-sustaining part—a distance of about five miles—in about an hour and a half. You could drive it in a few minutes.
Yet contained in that air above us, in the land around us, which covers about a third of the planet, and in the oceans, which cover about two thirds of the planet, are billions of life forms, nearly all depending on energy from the sun to drive their existence. Now we—one single animal, one single species—eat, use, or otherwise destroy almost half of all the biological resources on earth, leaving every other specie to compete with one another for the remaining half. And they’re not doing it very well.
There are some among us—principally economists—who say that’s just “natural selection.” They use slogans such as “survival of the fittest” to explain how humans have risen up and taken over and ultimately out-competed, and thus destroyed, so many species and ecosystems.
What these economists miss is that we live in a biological system that is already—anciently—aware of what we’re doing, but that calls it by a different name. Darwin’s notion of natural selection presupposed a homeostatic environment—his work in the Galapagos Islands on which he based his entire theory of evolution showed how small-beaked finches increased in population on the island (and large-beaked ones declined) during times when the weather and environment (modified in part by the finches themselves) favored smaller seeds. Because both small- and large-beaked finches could eat the small seeds, but the larger-beaked finches had to exert more calories to haul their big and heavy beaks around, the smaller-beaked finches had an efficiency advantage, and proliferated. But as they did, they also caused a decline in the population of small-seeded plants, which opened up space for larger-seeded plants to increase in number. And the larger seeds could be cracked and eaten only by the larger-beaked finches, thus putting them at an advantage and leading to an increase in their population (and a decrease in that of the small-beaked ones). But, over time, the large-beaked finches would reduce the large-seed-plant population to the point where the small-seed plants were again ascendant, and so the small-beaked finch population would reassert itself.
Although the system seesawed, it was essentially in homeostasis—both types of finches, and both types of plants, survived over the long haul.
But when a single element in a biological system rises up and begins to consume far more of the local resources than the system can sustain, eventually the system itself collapses. We call this cancer.
Moving into a circular system and out of our linear system won’t be easy or instant, particularly for our culture. History shows great extinctions on every continent as they were occupied by humans from the Pacific islands a thousand or so years ago to North and South America twenty thousand to thirty thousand years ago, to Australia even further back. Whether it was the moa of Asia or the woolly mammoth of Europe or the giant tree sloth of North America, humans flipped their environment on its head before learning hard and painful lessons about how to live in balance—in the circle—with their environment.
Our culture has largely turned to science to provide answers to the crises that have arisen because of our unsustainability. While science can provide solutions to many of the immediate problems we face, the error in relying solely on technological answers to what at its root is a flaw in our culture can be illustrated in a simple example. If I take my car apart and spread the pieces all over the driveway, and then reassemble it, assuming I have decent mechanical skills, it will turn on and run after reassembly. If I take a cow apart, and spread her body organs all over the driveway, and then stitch her back together, she will never again walk or moo.
As sophisticated as we are, nature is more so. As complex as our science is, nature is more so. The Biosphere experiments work only when part of the complex external world is allowed to leak into them and when some of their out-of-balance gasses and liquids are allowed to leak out. My little glass globe, as finely crafted as it is, will die off within a few generations of the shrimp living in it—probably by the end of this year.
The guiding principle of nature is a circular and sustainable way of life. Because we don’t live tribally and nobody has ever developed a fully sustainable city, state, or nation in our modern technological world, we’ll almost certainly get there only by trial and error (just as tribal people achieved sustainability for tens of millennia before us).