Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Point of Evolution

There isn’t any! Evolution is not “goal oriented,” and that’s the point. There is no goal to the evolutionary process, no sense of direction, no preference for a particular path or result, no intention—other than to choose what works under current conditions.

If a random genetic mutation causes a protein change that works in the context of the animal’s or plant’s structure, lifestyle, or environment, then that mutation tends to stick around. If the change the mutation creates works better than the existing protein regime, then the creature tends to live better, surpass what had come before, and the mutation becomes a platform to build on. If the change works just as well as the existing regime, the mutation might hang around for a while and eventually point the protein in a new direction, or not. If the change works poorly, the mutation might stay for a few generations as a recessive form of the gene and then—when enough ill effects have collected in a single organism—kill it off and foreclose its future lineage. This process does not require any kind of protein-coding genius, anticipation of effects, or foreknowledge about outcomes to render this judgment. It only needs the iron hand of survival as a criterion for accepting or rejecting the change in the context of the particular organism in its current environment.1

We humans are not ideal beings, not the products of any genius’s design or expectations. We are evolved apes, brothers to chimpanzees and bonobos, and second cousins to all other mammals. Our intelligence is of a different magnitude, a different order of complexity, but not a different kind from that of a chimp or a dog or an elephant. Are we the highest order of being on Earth? Well, yes, for now, and until we meet savants who shine brighter and who have come from other worlds. But that is not because we were chosen for our intelligence or beauty. We just ended up on the top of a steep and ragged heap.2

Theorists of creationism and intelligent design say that the development of a complex feature like an eyeball, all at once, with a lens to focus light, a retina to capture the image, and a visual cortex in the brain to interpret it—that such a cluster of developments happening simultaneously by random chance is impossible. And of course they are impossible—but that is not what evolution proposes.

Nothing in evolution happens all at once. Instead, the process is an accretion of small changes at the protein level, baby steps in molecular biology, tweaks to what has gone before. You start with a cell in which the chance mutation of a protein has yielded a fleck of material that happens to respond chemically to light waves. The reaction this enables might help a microbe move toward or away from sunlight. Then you build on that minor and almost overlooked capability over generations, with a random improvement here and a random innovation there: one might link those proteins together into a structure; another might differentiate the proteins to detect light in various wavelengths and so detect different colors. If you happen to develop from a single-celled microbe to a multi-celled organism, you might encircle those light-sensitive parts with a ring structure that channels the light waves, then add a surface that focuses them. And the brain that grows up in that creature might benefit by extending neural axons to detect and analyze the reactions in those light-sensing cells. These changes may all be happening simultaneously, developing different structures in parallel, but they do not come about all at one time in a single organism or even a single species.

Working this way, from a fleck of protein, you could, eventually, after a few million years, get an eyeball … or that microbe with its light-sensitive patch might encounter a period of drought, perish when its pond or puddle dries out, and never set the animal kingdom on the road to hawks and eagles that can spot a field mouse from a distance of a thousand feet.3

Of course there are many intermediate steps which are not improvements, even many that are backward and lethal. But they don’t survive compared to the steps that offer improvement. The “selection” part of “natural selection” is the criterion of what works. Mutations that don’t add to the system—or that detract from it—might hang around for a while and perhaps compete as a recessive form of the gene. But sooner or later, the recessives are weeded out—again through natural selection and by disabling or killing off their owners. What’s left, over time, are the improvements.

Evolution is no respecter of individuals. On the way to the best possible wing or eyeball, evolution will make many backward steps.4 And unless they confer a benefit on the individual, new mutations will either join the legion of genetic recessives in the species gene pool or die out completely. The fact that evolution can be destructive as well as constructive is shown by individuals in the current human population who suffer from eye defects, inflamed appendices, bone and joint defects, auto-immune diseases, and all sorts of other problems in this supposedly idealized human body.

To look at one body part or system and wonder how that intricate structure could have come about without careful and intelligent planning is like going into the desert, noticing a balanced rock on a ridgeline, or a natural bridge with an incredibly thin upper span, and wondering how nature could have carved such a delicate structure. It must have been planned, because nothing random like erosion with drops of water and grains of sand could leave such a perfectly poised sculpture. But the observer must remember that all he or she is seeing is the surviving member of a long line of trials and failures. For every balanced rock you see, there are thousands of rocks from that same ridge that have fallen over, smashed, and worn away, thousands of bridges that have collapsed into the chasm. You are looking at a snapshot in time from a process that’s been going on for millions of years. You only see the occasions when the forces of erosion and gravity came together in the right way and for a short while—in geological terms, for no more than an instant.

In the same way, when you look at a complex mechanism like the human eye or a bird’s wing, you’re only looking at the successful examples which have survived the myriad cullings of evolution and which proved beneficial to the organism. You don’t see the incidents of retinal disease, cornea deformation, and other defects that are constantly plaguing this perfectly complex system. And you don’t see the millennial creep of developments from the light-sensitive spot in a single-celled microbe, to the hex-combed eye structures of an insect or arachnid’s eye, to the familiar but less discriminating eyes and brains of fish, frogs, and reptiles, parallel to the differently evolved but similar eye structures of mollusks like octopi and squids, until you reach the really wondrous and effective eyes of latecomers like the dinosaurs, birds, and mammals.

A species or a family that evolved, say, on a planet with cloud cover so thick that light from its sun never reached the surface would find some other means of “seeing” and navigating through its world. It might develop cells with resonant crystals to detect radio waves, along with the structures to focus and enhance those signals. It might develop systems to detect heat in the infrared wave lengths, or high-energy waves in the x-ray and gamma ray frequencies. The rule governing such development would not be what was most elegant, or complex, or intelligent to provide for sight in these creatures, but what worked in the context of their environment. And if a family or a phylum of radio-seeing creatures had already evolved, it would be difficult for a new species of x-ray-seeing creatures to develop and compete with them unless the x-ray adaptation offered a distinct advantage.

No organic system or body part is perfect. None fits some pre-conceived, Platonic ideal that makes perfect sense. The sense we bring to the argument—that we are designed to fit this wondrous world—is a circular argument after the fact. We evolved to live on this world and to perceive it as wonderful. We will all understand this much better when we begin to voyage out into the universe, and not just to airless places like the Moon that we know are not for us. We’ll understand evolution better when we land on a near-perfect planet, with fresh air containing the right mix of nitrogen, oxygen, and trace gases, sunlight of the right color and intensity, gravity almost the same as Earth’s, something underfoot that looks like grass—and water with a consistent pH of 3 that burns the tongue right out of your mouth. So near and yet so far.5

Evolution is the most delicate process in the history of human science and the imagination. I find it endlessly fascinating and satisfying. Those who doubt its ability to create great complexity generally question the randomness of the changes on which evolution depends. Or they seek a straight-line development from one individual to the next over an unimaginably short time. Instead, they should focus on the criterion of selection: what works, survives; what hurts, dies. It’s as simple and as beautifully precise as that. And it’s the only way to create a creature that finds its current surrounding both pleasing and beautiful, sufficient and sustaining, wonderful and benevolent.

1. See also Evolution as Adaptation from September 1, 2013, and Evolution and Intelligent Design from February 24, 2013.

2. Some would question whether we humans are really smarter than dolphins, whales, or elephants—or do we just have physical improvements like thumbs and vocal cords that let us work and communicate better? And some would say we lose out to butterflies and birds on the scale of beauty—although our eyes and senses have evolved to detect and admire their kind of beauty in the first place and for a reason.

3. Why didn’t plants evolve eyes that see by sunlight, too? Probably because they didn’t need them. Many plants are sensitive to light, and will turn their stems and leaves to follow the sun—it’s called phototropism. But you don’t need an eyeball that produces a coherent image to do this. Evolution is remarkably efficient and doesn’t put eyeballs on elm trees, legs and arms on corn stalks that make their living by absorbing sunlight from a single patch of ground, or hair on the body parts of dolphins and whales that don’t need it to stay warm and protected.

4. The problem of deleterious and damaging effects in a single system is compounded by the fact that every organism is a complex of competing systems. All are developing at once and at different rates: nervous system, sensory systems, digestive system, skeletal and musculature systems. The tragedy comes when an organism with a very promising mutation in its eyeball is taken out by a lethal mutation in its digestive system or other body part. That’s why evolution is no respecter of individuals, and also why so many systems have been developed and improved many times over the course of life on Earth—such as the wings of pterodactyls, birds, and bats. Same function, same structural adaptations, but completely different family lineages.

5. We humans couldn’t have lived on the early Earth, either: wrong atmosphere without the foundation of the green plants to provide oxygen, wrong soil chemistry without an evolution of microbes to provide nourishment, wrong temperature without the stabilizing effects of greenhouse gases. We like the world into which we evolved, but we would hate the one in which our kind of life started.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Public Service

Twenty-odd years ago, when we were traveling in Europe every other year or so, we spent two weeks in the Netherlands, staying in Amsterdam at a delightful old hotel1 and making day-trips by rail around the country and, on one occasion, up to Cologne, Germany. The Netherlands is a neat and orderly country that practically defines middle-class, mercantile, civic virtue.2 One of the things you hardly notice—unless you ask, as I did—is how well managed the canal system is. For a city laced with concentric-ring canals, their walls lined with houseboats where people actually live and, presumably, flush their toilets, the water looks relatively fresh, rather than green and stagnant.

The other aspect of this waterborne city that I didn’t appreciate until we got up to Cologne was that the canals are all maintained at the same level year round. This was especially apparent in the neighborhood of the Rijksmuseum, which faces the Singelgracht—the outermost of the ring canals—about a third of a mile from the Amstel River itself. The museum grounds slant down to a low coping along the water. Across the canal there is a stretch of green lawn, and again, its edges are right on the water.

We made our trip in the springtime, late March, which is a good time to travel in Europe: minimal crowding and temperate weather, if you don’t mind occasional rain showers. What drew my attention to the state of the canals in Amsterdam was the state of the Rhine in Cologne. The Rhine was in flood, twenty feet over its banks. The riverside parks and their trees were well under water, and the tour boats were tied up to floating docks separated from their ticket kiosks by fifty feet of swollen river. Cologne’s waterfront was out of commission, while the Netherlands cities we visited—which are pretty much all waterfront—sailed placidly on.

I made a point of asking about this, when we got back to Amsterdam, and was told that throughout the city there is a system of locks and gates—which work like valves—to maintain the water level and move it through the canals to keep them fresh. These gates are under the control of the nearest householder, who has a daily and weekly schedule for opening and closing the sluices. If the householder goes out of town, he is expected to have a neighbor take over the duty. I suppose the schedule was originally worked out by the Ministry of Water Management, but the execution is local, personal, and responsible.

It’s a lovely system. If people want a clean city and fragrant canal right outside their home, they must take a few minutes every day to turn a valve and then later remember to turn it off. They act like adults, like good citizens.

You would think it could never work here, in American cities, where people spit on the sidewalks and worse, where they drop candy and fast-food wrappers ten feet away from a litter basket, where the focus is on “what can I get away with” rather than “what can I do to help.” And you would be almost right.

Americans used to have a strong sense of civic duty, and it’s still apparent in many small towns, where the fire department is run by volunteers, everyone comes together to plan the Fourth of July parade, and people still hold church bazaars and bake sales for good causes. But I can tell you from experience, it’s not just a small-town thing.

Next Saturday, the last Saturday of the month, is “Christmas in April,” which is now managed nationally by the nonprofit organization Rebuilding Together. It’s a day when people gather in teams—often sponsored by their company or community group—to repair and paint public housing, local facilities, and schools. I participated in a number of these events, and helped organize one, when I worked at Bayer Corporation in Berkeley.

At the last Christmas in April I attended, where we patched and painted the offices of an organization doing public advocacy for people with disabilities, I was sitting at lunch with Bayer’s site manager, who was an American, and the operational manager, who had come over from the parent company in Germany. I looked around and commented that the event was like an old-fashioned barn raising. The site manager just smiled at this, but the operational manager was mystified. “What is a barn raising?” he asked. I proceeded to explain the reference, and he said, “In Germany we do not have this.” I would guess not, as Germany has not been a frontier country with a pioneering spirit for about fifteen hundred years.

Another major volunteer opportunity in California is Coastal Cleanup Day, which is held on the third Saturday in September—this year on the 20th. People around the Bay Area and along the coasts and waterways join in local events which are organized by their town, community group, or company to pick up trash and debris on beaches and waterside banks. The local organizers usually make a game of it, awarding prizes for the strangest or most disgusting found objets. The statewide Coastal Commission also asks participants to record and track the types of trash collected, so they can gauge the effectiveness of litter-prevention and environmental programs.

For about a dozen years, my wife was a member of the Monday Day Crew at The Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands west of Sausalito. The center rescues sick and injured seals and sea lions, nurses them back to health, and releases them to the wild. It has a few permanent staff members—mostly professionals in animal health—but the place is organized and run by volunteers, who learn how to handle the animals, feed them, clean up after them, and manage the facility.3

Another local volunteer opportunity is ushering program at the nonprofit Berkeley Repertory Theater—something both my wife and I have done, although she’s more of a scheduled regular and I’m just a fill-in. In exchange for a couple of hours taking tickets, handing out programs, showing people to their seats, and policing up after the show, you get to see a professionally performed play of national reputation—and sometimes one in its first run anywhere.

The point of this meditation is that the spirit of civic duty is not dead in America. Not at all. Our people still have some of that pioneering spirit where, if you want a good thing to happen, you go out yourself, get your friends and neighbors involved, and make it work. We don’t wait around for someone from the government to fix the problem or create the opportunity. We do it ourselves. … And that’s a strength.

1. The Roode Leeuw (“Red Lion”) on the Damrak. The building is 15th century; the establishment dates from 1911; and the service is professional yet wonderfully homely and friendly. The waiter at our table in the dining room spoke English, French, German, and Italian as well as Dutch, and it was a hoot to listen to him as he worked his tables.

2. If you can avoid the vapid sadness that is the Red Light District and ignore the aggressive young men peddling marijuana to tourists on the way into town from the train station.

3. One of the veterinarians at The Marine Mammal Center, a woman from the Netherlands, once told my wife that such a volunteer-run organization would never survive in Europe. “The women might volunteer to come in and pet the animals, maybe—but to shovel their poop? Never!”

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Creative Tension, Creative Destruction

I’m not a fan of war, conflict, strife, or argument for their own sakes, but sometimes I prefer them to the alternative. The alternative to an ongoing argument or an unresolved tug-of-war is that one side wins finally and decisively, which means the other side loses finally and decisively. This can be a valuable and desirable outcome only if we know ahead of time that the winner is truly on the side of the angels and the loser aligned with the devils.1

Most conflicts involve life, safety, and dearly held principles and beliefs. In those cases, I’m not wise enough or powerful enough to have a final answer. And so I treasure the tension of continued argument, punctuated with negotiated truces and temporary settlements, rather than a winner-take-all final resolution. Things work better when both sides stand by their principles, argue as brilliantly as they can, fight as hard as their resources allow, and reach a resolution that neither much likes but both can accept, because they are too tired, too worn out, or too confused to continue.

Creative tension, the ongoing struggle, is the best situation for most human economic and political conflicts. When labor contends with management over money and job conditions, each side has its nonnegotiable minimums—safety and a livable wage for the workers; economic survival and a reasonable profit for the company—and each has dreams of enlargement and wish fulfillment—job guarantees and early retirement at full salary for workers; higher profits, a new corporate jet, and shareholder dividends for the company. They pursue these dreams though threat, bluff, and occasional sharp action—the sacrifice of a prolonged strike by the union; the loss of productivity through a lockout or plant shutdown by management. But what neither side wants is to destroy the other. Management does not want to eliminate workers or the union, because it would lose valuable skills and its investment through training, as well as known faces and predictable responses on the other side of the bargaining table. Labor does not want to eliminate management and the company it represents, because that would mean loss of jobs and the dues-paying workers who hold them.

Have you ever watched two male songbirds or two male stickleback fish in a fight for territory? Each stakes out ground around its nests, and then the males meet at the border and compete. With songbirds, the contest takes shape in the volume and strength of their songs. With fish, it’s the aggression of their postures and display of their spines. The interesting thing is that as one male advances on another’s declared ground and away from his own nest, he tends to grow weaker and more uncertain. When the other retreats and approaches his nest, he grows stronger and more aggressive. The two move back and forth until a balance of aggression and fear develops in the mind of each animal. That point of stasis, of stability between advance and retreat, defines the new border. Creative tension.

If the battle between economic or political forces goes on long enough, with serial agreements and compromises, periods of grudging status quo punctuated by occasional competitive maneuvers and pitched battles, conducted through product launches and sales campaigns between companies, or through legislative proposals and election campaigns between parties, with territory won and lost, voters or customers won and lost—then a new reality begins to develop in the minds of adherents on either side.

Among the party members or company leaders who see their side win more often than they lose, who sense validation and confirmation of their opinions and beliefs, a sense of complacency may set in. They cease to fight so hard. They expect to win by employing the same old maneuvers, maintaining the same old product or party line, and going through the familiar motions. Or they sense imminent victory and expand their demands and dreams into new and untried constituencies and customer bases. Like the songbird or the stickleback who advances too far from its nest, they become either less aggressive or unsure about exactly what they’re seeking and fighting for, unable to defend so wide a territory.2

Conversely, among party members or company leaders who see their side lose more than they win, a sense of desperation sets in. They reexamine their basic premises and tactics, abandon old arguments and worn-out ideas, and search for new grounds and methods in the fight. Like the songbird or stickleback pressed back toward his nest, they become more aggressive and reduce their requirements to core necessities. Creative destruction.

The marketplace is competitive in the same way as the political field. Buyers choose with their dollars just as political supporters choose with their votes. One brand or another in the market—Ford vs. GM, Hertz vs. Avis, Apple vs. Microsoft, Peet’s vs. Starbucks—is either up or down, winning customers through innovative products, aggressive marketing, and better customer service, or losing customers through lackluster products, complacent advertising, and arrogance. So long as buyers and voters are not locked into a single choice by market monopoly or political dictatorship, fortunes rise and fall between periods of stasis, of temporary stability, driven by complacency and desperation, by aggression and fear.

Please note that I am not calling for the old paradigm, attributed to German philosophers like Hegel and Marx, that when thesis meets antithesis the result must inevitably be conflict, mutual destruction of opposing positions, and a new synthesis. In that case, neither side really wins, and both sides lose, because they disappear into the new synthesis. I am not looking for a melding or a conquest of positions, the destruction or sudden transformation of either side. Instead, I treasure the balancing of forces.

Neither side in a situation of creative tension has to relinquish its principles or suffer a loss of identity. Both continue jostling until a point of balance is reached—not harmony, not necessarily cooperation, but an acceptable status quo. And that point of stability lasts until one side or the other seeks to renegotiate the terms or improve its condition. Is this endless strife and warfare? Yes, but it’s a condition built into the human psyche, because when you stop personally seeking, striving, fighting, and conniving, then you’re either a prisoner of war, a bound slave, or dead.

Creative tension and creative destruction are built into the world we see around us. They are certainly the basis of evolution by natural selection. Individuals and species are constantly competing—for mates, for territory, for the resources of a niche for which each is better or worse adapted. Evolution is not the survival of the fiercest or most ruthless, but survival of those who can best adapt to current conditions: offering in bodily form, appetite, hardiness, and flexibility the best use of the current conditions. A political party or competitive enterprise seeks the same in its economic or political environment through superior goals, better products, increased satisfaction, and the arguments and marketing maneuvers to support them.

Creative tension and creative destruction are what holds stars, galaxies, and living organisms together. A star is a stable—although, in cases like our own Sun, still variable—balance between expansive pressure due to friction and heat, and compressive pressure due to the attraction of gravity. A spiral galaxy is a balance between rotation and the centrifugal force pulling stars away from the galactic center, and gravity attraction drawing them inward. A living body is a balance between cell growth and development, and cell deterioration and decay. Nothing alive and moving in the universe is inert. And anything that isn’t being pulled in two directions at once can hardly be called alive.

Like volleyball and tennis, the game is over only when the ball stops moving. Keeping the ball in the air, while maneuvering your opponent into an impossible position, is the whole point of the game. But when the ball does hit the ground and go out of play, and the last person to touch it on the opposite side of the net is declared the winner, then the game ends—and no one really wants that to happen.

1. That was the case in World War II, where the losers were the aggressive and genocidal Nazis and the fanatically imperialist Japanese military, and the winners were the allied forces that opposed them in their quest for world domination. This is why many people call WWII the last “good war.” Most conflicts, however, are not so clear-cut. And on any side of any conflict, real human people are contending for the sake of—if not their own lives and those of people they hold dear—then for values that to them seem right, proper, and good.

2. At a Christmas party in Berkeley last year, I heard a lifelong Democrat—as were most of the people in the room—declare that the country still needed the two-party system, but that Republicans no longer counted as a major party. He thought the real contest should instead be between the old-style Democrats and the hard-line Progressives and Communists: they could form the poles of a new political axis. This confirms my belief that, as soon as one side thinks it has won, it will fragment over policies and priorities in order to continue fighting.
       In the same way, a dozen years ago Apple thought it had won in the computer market against Microsoft and its competitors and so expanded into music players, telephones, and television. And Hewlett-Packard was so successful in its market niche for instruments and calculators that it expanded into personal computers, printers, scanners, and other peripherals, until they didn’t know exactly what they were selling anymore. Creative fulfillment can lead to destruction.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Illusion of Self

One of the teachings of Buddhism is that the existence of a self, of the person you think you are, is an illusion. Most people scoff at this, because one’s self and one’s life are so palpably, thumpingly real and important. “Without myself,” they think, “who and where and what would I be?” The notion seems silly that the crucial fact of a person’s entire existence might be an illusion.

Indeed, the human baby spends much of its early months and its first few years—lost to all of us in the mists and confusions of a developing brain and mind—in considering the world around it and the differences between the sensory images and tactile feel of that world and the being that does the feeling and touching. A toddler becomes aware when it separates its image of self from the world. From there, the child is learning and growing, developing talents, adding skills, demonstrating likes and dislikes, modeling behaviors both good and bad from the people around it. The first third of life—toddlerhood, childhood, adolescence—is when we humans develop our keen sense of self.

By the time we finish adolescence, we have a pretty good idea of who we are, what we can do, how we’ll react, how we think, and what we want out of life. We are ready to perform in the world, take action, refine our talents and skills, and make our place in the society into which we were born. We may still learn, but the learning is directed by a base of experience and a self-selected sets of rules, attachments, and goals. We have stopped—pretty much, anyway—deciding who we are and spend our time becoming better at being that person. The middle third of life is the time of action and increase.

And the last third? By the time a human enters what we used to call “middle age” and starts getting senior discounts on tickets, filling out Social Security forms, and looking longingly at old scrapbooks, a tiny wedge of doubt begins to set in. It suddenly takes a moment’s thought to recall details of people and places and activities we’ve always known and loved. We are slower and less flexible than we used to be, and the body sometimes trips us up. We think back on the enthusiasms we expressed in our young age, we look at old pictures, we read the things we once wrote, and we wonder, “Who is this person?” We know the person we can see in the mirror, we study the face in the picture, and they deny each other.

We all acknowledge the truth, taught in psychology and sociology classes, that we are different people in different situations. We take on different roles and act differently as sons, brothers, friends, lovers, husbands, uncles, fathers, and grandfathers.1 We try to be consistent in these roles, approaching each with a personal set of core values about honesty, truth telling, loyalty, strength, generosity, compassion, and other behaviors we have either modeled from the people we admired in childhood or adopted because, in our experience, these behaviors have always brought good results. But a son shares knowledge in a completely different fashion than a father does, and brothers may share secrets that friends will never be allowed to know.

At a certain point—after one has adopted these different roles, fulfilled his or her varied functions in the family, the economy, and the society, and stared into the old pictures and compared them with the face in the mirror—the inevitable question must arise: “Who am I?” And from there, it’s a small step to the even harder question: “What am I?”

Am I my body? Many people prize their physical selves and build much of their life and sense of self around the body and its achievements: athletes, actors, fashion models, and those involved in occupations that require great beauty or physical strength. But if I am my body, am I then wholly changed—my self diminished—if I lose a hand, a leg, an eye, or other body part? I would hope to be mentally flexible enough to adapt—and even make an intellectual challenge and a learning experience out of adapting—to the loss and then continue bravely onward. But I can also understand how, for the person who has dedicated his or her life to fashion modeling or athletics, a maiming accident might seem like the end of the known self and the end of life itself. And certainly anyone who has contracted a serious or life-threatening illness suffers a contraction of personal focus, down to the organ or system that is damaged or deteriorating and the personal vulnerability of being dependent on a functioning physical form.

Am I my mind? As a writer—one who since childhood has worked and played with words, concepts, imagination, and the world of the unseen, who has profited from these skills and built a persona around them—I am far more ready to give up a finger or a hand than to give up a part of my brain that supports these talents and skills. If I were to go blind, my life would not necessarily end. I would require another person to read to me, or depend on a machine that speaks aloud the texts I select—with all the slowness and fumbling that these supports imply. I would try in earnest to use computer dictation and restrain, as much as possible, my personal itch to verify every spelling and capitalization, agonize over the placement of commas and periods, and fiddle with the look of the words on the page as well as their sound and meaning. My life would not end, but large parts of it would be disrupted to the point of madness.

And yet, I am not just my word skills, my imagination, and my store of facts and relationships which all, collectively, make me a writer. I have other talents, roles, and uses in this life—although it’s sometimes hard to remember and think of them. Right now, I am focused on writing and imagination, and feel that I am still growing, developing, and reaching new peaks with these skills. But I also realize that they are ephemeral. Every so often I have a “senior moment” when a word or name escapes me. It’s there at the tip of my tongue, just out of reach in the gray void of my subconscious, and I know that within ten minutes or half an hour it will pop out fresh in an “Oh, of course!” flash of recall. And I can foretell from this experience that, eventually, the word or name may be gone for a day, a week, or forever. There will come a time when I will sit down at the keyboard, and the words will flow less smoothly and quickly, the thoughts will stutter, my mind will draw a blank. And at some point—pray it be in the far distant future!—this whirligig of writing talent that I spin will shut down for good.

What will I be then? A fashion model without a face. A baseball player without a hand. I will still have memories of what I have been and done, a personal set of core values to drive my actions for the time I have left, friends and family to remind me about who I was. But I will be sincerely diminished.

So what am I? What is this “self”? It is a physical body—a collection of chemicals in cells and learned patterns and responses—which is subject to growth and deterioration, and ultimately to decay and dissolution. It is a physical brain that supports an unseen and unknowably complex ghost called the mind that simultaneously lives in the present of sensory and intellectual experience, the past of memory, and the future of goals and hopes. It is a set of personal, family, social, economic, and civic relationships that are constantly changing and subject to reevaluation. It is a set of memories about facts, experiences, relationships, images, and senses that are continually being rewritten as I recall them, sometimes becoming embellished, and sometimes denying themselves.

I am a cloud of action and potential, moving across time in the same way a cloud of water vapor moves across the sky. Like that puffy cloud, I am constantly changing shape and direction, sometimes growing, sometimes dissipating. I am real, solid, and definable for this minute only, and I will become something else in the next minute. Even what I might remember of this minute will be subject to change.

And that makes the notion that I am a single person, whole and constant, an unchanging matrix of skills, talents, loves and loyalties, dreams and expectations, the same today as yesterday, predictably the same tomorrow … simply an illusion.

1. For women, the roles of daughter, sister, friend, lover, wife, aunt, mother, and grandmother are comparable but decidedly different from those for men. Human relationships are infinitely varied and shaded.