Are you one organism, or are you somewhere between 60 to 80 trillion different organisms? Are you a single being, or a walking coral reef made out of all those land-based versions of polyps? We, of course, tend to think of ourselves as one thing – but to me it seems to be just a matter of perspective. For the lone red blood cell in a vein of my body, reality is one thing, and for the skin cell on my nose it’s another. From their perspective, what is this “I” that I speak of?
One could of course say that we’re one thing because each cell depends on another, and without the whole, that single cell would be dead. But that’s true of the coral reef too. The single polyp is a dead polyp. In numbers, its survival is much more protected. And while it might not run over to the next polyp to give it food, it is as dependent as the skin cell is of the blood cell.
Once when I was a kid mum took me to a lab of some kind, and one of the research assistants wanted to impress me, or he wanted to impress my mum, I don’t know, but he let me look into his microscope where was working with cancer cells. Cancer cells are immortal. That is why they are cancer cells. There is one cancer cell cluster that has outlived its host by some sixty year. The woman, Henrietta Lacks, was an African-American woman that died in 1951. Her cancer cells survive to this day as the HeLa line of research cells.
Does this mean that Henrietta Lacks is, somehow, still alive? Her genetic material survives, in those cells, and they keep dividing like they always did in life. Maybe when I watched those cells in the microscope, I was watching the spark of life that was in Henrietta, continue in the lump in the petri dish?
Of course, there is more to being human than to be alive, but being alive is one criterion for being human. That lump in the solution was alive, and will never die until it runs out of food, and if it has survived for sixty odd years, it will survive sixty odd years more. Or six hundred years. Or six thousand. At least one human has, partially, achieved the elusive dream of eternal life – even though the circumstances could be more dignified. Again, it’s all a matter of perspective.
Henrietta’s cells have been around far enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if the cells in the microscope in the lab in Sweden belonged to her. That’s part of the aspect of the book, and it is best summarized by one of Henrietta’s daughters. “I have no health insurance. It would be nice if I could afford some of the medicines that my mother’s cells helped create.”
But the book helps to switch the perspective around. Are we one organism or between 60-80 trillion? And if parts of us live on and, such as in Henrietta’s case, achieve immortality then does that mean that we live on too? The “I” that speak this?