2011 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?

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Vice President of Research & Collections, Denver Museum of Nature & Science; Dinosaur paleontologist and science communicator; Author, Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life
INTERBEING

Humanity's cognitive toolkit would greatly benefit from adoption of "interbeing," a concept that comes from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In his words:

"If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in [a] sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either . . . "Interbeing" is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix "inter-" with the verb to be," we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have a paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paperinter-are. . . . "To be" is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is."

Depending on your perspective, the above passage may sound like profound wisdom or New Age mumbo-jumbo. I would like to propose that interbeing is a robust scientific fact — at least insomuch as such things exist — and, further, that this concept is exceptionally critical and timely.

Arguably the most cherished and deeply ingrained notion in the Western mindset is the separateness of our skin-encapsulated selves — the belief that we can be likened to isolated, static machines. Having externalized the world beyond our bodies, we are consumed with thoughts of furthering our own ends and protecting ourselves. Yet this deeply rooted notion of isolation is illusory, as evidenced by our constant exchange of matter and energy with the "outside" world. At what point did your last breath of air, sip of water, or bite of food cease to be part of the outside world and become you? Precisely when did your exhalations and wastes cease being you? Our skin is as much permeable membrane as barrier, so much so that, like a whirlpool, it is difficult to discern where "you" end and the remainder of the world begins. Energized by sunlight, life converts inanimate rock into nutrients, which then pass through plants, herbivores, and carnivores before being decomposed and returned to the inanimate Earth, beginning the cycle anew. Our internal metabolisms are intimately interwoven with this Earthly metabolism; one result is the replacement of every atom in our bodies every seven years or so.

You might counter with something like, "Ok, sure, everything changes over time. So what? At any given moment, you can still readily separate self from other."

Not quite. It turns out that "you" are not one life form — that is, one self — but many. Your mouth alone contains more than 700 distinctkinds of bacteria. Your skin and eyelashes are equally laden with microbes and your gut houses a similar bevy of bacterial sidekicks. Although this still leaves several bacteria-free regions in a healthy body — for example, brain, spinal cord, and blood stream — current estimates indicate that your physical self possesses about a trillion human cells and about 10 trillion bacterial cells. In other words, at any given moment, your body is about 90% nonhuman, home to many more life forms than the number of people presently living on Earth; more even than the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy! To make things more interesting still, microbiological research demonstrates that we are utterly dependent on this ever-changing bacterial parade for all kinds of "services," from keeping intruders at bay to converting food into useable nutrients.

So, if we continually exchange matter with the outside world, if our bodies are completely renewed every few years, and if each of us is a walking colony of trillions of largely symbiotic life forms, exactly what is this self that we view as separate? You are not an isolated being. Metaphorically, to follow current bias and think of your body as a machine is not only inaccurate but destructive. Each of us is far more akin to a whirlpool, a brief, ever-shifting concentration of energy in a vast river that's been flowing for billions of years. The dividing line between self and other is, in many respects, arbitrary; the "cut" can be made at many places, depending on the metaphor of self one adopts. We must learn to see ourselves not as isolated but as permeable and interwoven — selves within larger selves, including the species self (humanity) and the biospheric self (life). The interbeing perspective encourages us to view other life forms not as objects but subjects, fellow travelers in the current of this ancient river. On a still more profound level, it enables us to envision ourselves and other organisms not as static "things" at all, but as processes deeply and inextricably embedded in the background flow.

One of the greatest obstacles confronting science education is the fact that the bulk of the universe exists either at extremely large scales (e.g., planets, stars, and galaxies) or extremely small scales (e.g., atoms, genes, cells) well beyond the comprehension of our (unaided) senses. We evolved to sense only the middle ground, or "mesoworld," of animals, plants, and landscapes. Yet, just as we have learned to accept the non-intuitive, scientific insight that the Earth is not the center of the universe, so too must we now embrace the fact that we are not outside or above nature, but fully enmeshed within it. Interbeing, an expression of ancient wisdom backed by science, can help us comprehend this radical ecology, fostering a much-needed transformation in mindset.