Gut feel

bacteriaTwo of my friends recently made a spaceship. You didn’t hear about it because they are publicity-shy, but I’ve seen it, and it works.

I understand only some of the science, but essentially it looks like most spaceships in pop culture: more or less cylindrical, with a bulbous front bit that houses the command centre, a long middle bit where the crew live, and propulsion units sticking out the back. What really stunned me, though, was just how big it is. It’s vast. The living quarters can house literally millions of voyagers, representing thousands of different species from all corners of the galaxy. (Almost none of the crew is human.)

I asked my friends what the point of the vessel was and they explained that, like most transportation, it has only one mission: to keep everything inside safe and in working order as it wanders this way and that through the universe.

Interestingly, the ship collects its own fuel. In fact that’s pretty much all it does. Scanners detecting edible food? Hard to starboard, Number One! Oxygen found in the atmosphere? Alpha Team, prepare to inhale! As soon as the crew has positioned the ship near a new source of sustenance, a loading dock in the front part opens up, and the goodies are transported down into the middle of the ship, where millions of workers convert it into whatever is needed. A few hours later, waste products are ejected into space from between the propulsion units.

The ship has an official name, something pretty and optimistic, but to everybody on board she’s just “The Tube”. Because that’s what she is: a city-sized hose pipe that sucks in energy and ejects waste. Every living thing on board exists to serve the tube, and in return, the tube keeps them alive.

The spaceship is, of course, a human baby, and the vast crew that will push this person through the universe – nudging it this way for food, that way for love, the other way for shelter – is the swarm of bacteria that have already taken residence in her gut.

Humanity, we accept, exists somewhere between our ears.

When the discovery of Homo naledi was announced, some writers posed the well-thumbed question: what makes us human? Is it our intellect? Our emotions? The way they come together to create beliefs, customs and relationships?

They are good questions, but, perhaps because they are usually asked by thinkers, their answers tend to gravitate to the brain, like dust around a planet. Humanity, we generally accept, exists somewhere between our ears.

There’s no denying that the brain is astonishing. That melon-sized lump of fat has subjugated an entire planet. It can hold dazzling amounts of information, like how, when you eat cereal and you spill down your chin, you need to scoop it back into your mouth with the same action you use for shaving, and why Sam Smith’s new Bond theme is a subtle critique and inversion of the hegemony of the patriarchal, Shirley Bassey-esque idiom that has dominated the franchise for too long. But these days, it also knows about something called faecal transplants.

I’ve listened, spellbound, to a surgeon who performs them. “Perform” is the only appropriate verb: implanting faecal matter from one person into the bowels of another person seems more like a by-invitation-only circus act in a London basement than a medical procedure.

It’s horrifying. But only if you believe the accepted answers to that old question; that we are human mainly because of our brains, and that our humanity is a refined, higher magic that flits about in our skulls like cherubs riding on winged rainbows. If you consider the possibility that we exist for the benefit of our passengers then such transplants aren’t freak shows. They’re the new owners moving in.

Just how human can we claim to be when our bodies are home to millions of non-human life forms, all working away, night and day, to keep themselves fed, warm and happy? Are we truly free-thinking individuals when our health, and possibly even our moods and thoughts, are created and maintained by our on-board crew of aliens? Are we here to learn about ourselves and others, or are we lengths of mobile hose pipe, slaves to a tiny civilization that lives inside us and endlessly orders us to shove stuff into the top of the pipe and, from time to time, make more pipes so that more of our overlords can live in new digs?

That’s why I like the spaceship analogy. Spaceships are nobler than hose pipes. They are built for adventure, not just consumption. They go boldly where no self-aware mass transit system has gone before. They – oh, wait, message from the engine room. Yes, sir? Time for me to have lunch? Right away, sir.

Resistance is futile.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail


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