Babies, Autonomous Construction, and Wonder

Familiarity, unfortunately, is quite possibly the greatest destroyer of fascination. Curiosity is notably missing from the vast majority of the adult populace. Few things in this world have filled the author of this passage with more wonder than the growth of a human being from a single cell—the zygote. What is more familiar and what is more complex? Although easy to take for granted, one should, occasionally, recall the intricacies of his or her own growth and development.

Public Domain

Public Domain

For this discussion only, even though a single cell is almost unfathomably complex, we shall treat the cell as fundamental. Somehow the single cell creates new cells that are both (a) in the correct position and (b) properly specialized. First, consider the proper positioning of new cells. For example, for the adult thumb to function properly, the bone must maintain a certain shape. Without the proper shape, the bone would not fit into the joints to facilitate movement, adequately withstand impacts, transmit force, and so forth. Dead cells must be replaced by new cells to maintain the bone’s structural integrity, and even that is easier to comprehend than the fact that the bone was shaped properly in the first place. During fetal development, new bone cells piled up next to each other in the proper configuration until a bone was formed.

Notice that there is no external auditor. In construction, the architect draws the plans, the workers lay the bricks, and the site supervisor monitors progress for quality. These people are all external to the building itself. Imagine if each brick could produce a new brick and that these bricks would pile on top of each other to make four walls. Each brick would “know” whether or not the next brick should be the corner brick or if the new brick should be placed above, below, or beside itself. Once the walls are completed, the bricks would autonomously stop replicating. Of course, each brick, from time to time, would replace adjacent broken or old bricks with new ones. Without a doubt, everyone watching from the apartment building next door would be astonished by this self-building building.

Public Domain

Public Domain

Continuing with the analogy, imagine now that the building started as a small glob of jello akin to the body’s stem cells. This glob produces other globs as well as bricks, mortar, copper wires, insulation, glass windows, doors, doorknobs, tile floors, plaster interior walls, and everything else needed for a modern building. Each of these material types are placed in the proper position to perform their respective functions. Copper is formed in long lines within the insulation to conduct electricity. Windows are formed in the brick walls. The automatic doors would work, the lights would turn on, and the building wouldn’t fall. This would all happen without any external supervision. And if that’s not enough, the building would continue to function in every way as it progressively grew to its full height.

This is how the body works. What in the nonliving world behaves this way? In general, the nonliving world tends toward decreased complexity, not toward neurons, gastrointestinal tracks, and eyeballs. If you imagine a human being standing on a tall mountain with no vegetation—living juxtaposed with nonliving—then your mind’s eye will behold a pristine example of absurdity.

© Jack G. M. FitzGerald, 2014

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