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One of the most intense epiphanies of my life came from reading a school textbook in third grade.  The book revealed that blood is not really a homogenous liquid but a mixture of different sorts of individual living cells suspended in plasma.  The ramifications of this were stunning: I am not really an “I” at all but a collection of many, many infinitesimal living things.  Perhaps that doesn’t strike you as a particular revelation (not after a few college bio classes anyway) but really think about it.  Your heart could be removed and given to someone else—after all it’s just a big collection of living muscle cells.  Your memories and thoughts actually exist as chemical slurry somewhere within individual brain cells–each of which is stretching out all sorts of different ganglia to its neighbors like a desperate socialite trying to climb into the beau monde through networking.

The majority of the cells in our body are not even our own cells but symbiotic bacteria (without which we would be unable to digest things and would die) or outright invaders.  Even within the cells which are our own there exist mitochondria—alien outsider cells which moved (or were captured) into some remote unicellular ancestor in the fathomless depths of time.

I remember staring out the window of the elementary school in shock that I was made up of tiny living beings. The idea is familiar but it still sends a frisson of alienation through me.  Each of us is like a swarm of army ants or a siphonophore or a Renaissance city state:  we are units made up of many smaller living things.

White Blood Cells, Platelets (stained purple), a T-Lymphocyte white cell (stained green), and a Monocyte white cell (stained gold) as seen through a scanning electron microscope. ©2000 Dennis Kunkel, Ph.D.

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