As a teacher, it is always a special moment when you stand in front of a new intake of students ready to begin study of the body. Each student brings with them a wealth of different experiences, and each will be commencing the course with a different level of biological understanding. Where to begin? How to engage these diverse minds?
I ask them to cast their minds back, to recall their earliest memory from childhood. We listen to some examples of early experience. Then I ask if they can remember being born.
We each have a personal history that is unique, and yet we are all linked to a common heritage. We have each started from a different place and a different time, and yet here we are together in one room at this time.
I use the following allegory about travelling back in time as a way of showing the students that we are the product of an ongoing process.
|Our path through the forest is not an easy one – the deep shadows fill us with foreboding and the ground is uneven, causing us to stumble from time to time. The dappled spots of brightness that filter through the leafy canopy draw us on, inspiring our search. There is an occasional clearing where we can rest and catch our breath, looking upwards to feel the warming rays of the Sun on our faces before moving on. |
|And then – unexpectedly – our progress is barred by a stone edifice of weathered stone blocks, buttressed with vine stems and patch worked with lichens. A temple? But why here, in the ‘Forest of the Unknowing’?|
A figure stands before an opening in the stone wall, and we move towards her, our minds filling with questions…
‘Hello – we are lost. Where are we? Is this a temple? Who are you?’
|She remains impassive - her clothing is different, unfamiliar. Is she from an ancient religious sect or a visitor from the future? Everything has an aura of unreality. |
She says only this - "Know thyself", and steps to one side, giving us access to the opening and the warmly-lit space inside.
We enter, and looking around we see images of ourselves reflected back from full-height mirrors attached to the walls. Such is vanity! We arrange ourselves, offer our best profiles, flatten our stomachs to produce the most flattering appearance. Is this knowing ourselves? Hardly!
We move on, grateful for the smooth floor underfoot after the difficult terrain of the forest, and discover that we have entered not a room but a corridor, arcing away enticingly and suffused with warm light.
There are doors on each side, some slightly ajar and others closed and bolted. Curiosity gets the better of me, and I push open one of the doors and look in.
Through the haze I can see some figures. Of course! It is my parents, and I am there too. They look upset – my mother has her arm around my father’s shoulders, and he is crying. I am looking at him, and thinking that I have never seen him cry before. It is the moment at which my life becomes my own responsibility. What have I just told them? And then I remember, and turn my back on them and return to the corridor. You are there too, having looked through a different door, and you too are struggling to conceal your feelings.
We walk on without speaking, aware now that we are on a journey into our pasts. The scene revealed through the next doorway shocks – there is my mother giving birth, and I look on, fascinated, terrified, unable to breathe… This tearing and rending of tissues, the extreme pain of separation – the newborn looks out, as I look in. "Who am I? Who are you?" the baby’s eyes seem to say - these are questions to haunt a lifetime.
I look deep into the baby’s eyes, and see the retinal cells at the back. I become one of them, reaching up to catch the dappled light beams as they dance brightly overhead. I feel the shared need to make sense of the patterns, the fleeting contrasts of light and shade.
Looking back past the eye I see the cells of the brain, a buzz of interconnections and communication, both near and far, a jangling network – again the struggle to find meaning in the chaos…"Who am I? Who are you?" There is a feeling of such intensity, of something emerging that not one of us can comprehend, but of which we are all part…a dawning of consciousness.
|I can see back further now, to the busy placenta where everything I needed was provided by my mother for the long months before birth, and where everything I didn’t need could be disposed of. The uneasy truce between two different populations, maternal and fetal - the policing level was high, as were the stakes.|
|Now on back to the embryo, where all the organs and tissues are being created in miniature, but always alive – the movement, the changing forces, occasional crises, each cell thinking "what shall I do next?", and looking around for cues. What drives them?|
|Further back still, the blastocyst makes contact with the lining of the mother’s womb, young and aging greet each other guardedly, the one symbolically usurping the other, the other beginning to give way to the inevitability of death. But not yet…|
|Conception is the starting point of the new life. The princess in her crystalline sphere sleeps fitfully, awaiting the arrival of her courageous prince as he moves heaven and earth to reach her and combine with her.|
|Fortunately, I cannot see my parents at this moment. It would not be wise – poor Tristram Shandy’s life was irrevocably predetermined by his mother’s apparently innocent question of his father "have you not forgot to wind up the clock?" The importance of time and place…|
Journeying back to the time of conception when we were handed the Olympic Flame of life gives us insight into our personal beginning, but what came before – what about my parents’ history, my parents’ parents, and theirs before them? Where and when was the flame originally lit?
We walk on through the Tunnel of Time, glimpsing cycle before cycle of creation, development and death. We see our land before vehicles, we see a landscape of ice. We watch our ancestors using stone tools and fire for the first time. We trace our migrations in reverse back to an unfamiliar Africa, and watch the emergence of people-like apes many generations ago.
Now we have reached the time before people, and marvel at the shapes and forms of life. We see how the giant dinosaurs were created from smaller predecessors, and walk on back through time until eventually life is only to be seen in the oceans, not yet on land.
We see complicated cells like the ones that build our bodies being formed by live-in partnerships between once free-living precursors, and further back still we see the simpler living cells populating the seas unchallenged for eons. Where did those first formed cells come from – were they created here from scratch, or did they drop in from ‘out there’, seeded from space? The mists of time make it hard to be sure…
the heavens above
Now the Tunnel of Time shakes with the heat and fire of creation, as our tiny planet forms spinning around our juvenile Sun. The dust grains of our Solar System’s origins already have tales to tell, of exploding stars and the formation of new elements at the climax of star-death. Their dust stories would go on to include their parts in our creation, as transient constituents of the lit torch of life. The Sun, remarkably, chose to sustain us throughout life’s unfolding.
But what was there before the stars? Before the atoms from which they are made?
The sides of the corridor close in, and the heat intensifies until we are driven back. Some mysteries will remain - about the conception of the universe, and its early development. We feel the vibrations of its birth echoing around us, and try to imagine what happened.
the return journey
As we retrace our steps along the tunnel of time, we reflect upon the marvels we have seen. We have witnessed the unbroken thread that connects the earliest lifeforms with us today. We have seen that before life became possible, the atomic building blocks themselves had to be created, linking us with cataclysmic events on the grand scale of space and time. What a rich recycled heritage!
In the more abstract sense, this much has also become clear - each tiny atom, each cell, each person, each open system is a network of interactions both creating and sustaining its existence and development. Networks can categorise, assess and make sense of jumbled inputs, model inside what’s outside. Then, as atoms combine to form life, as open systems interact with each other to form our world, networks at one level communicate with each other to produce new meta networks with new properties - similar but somehow different from the properties of the parts. And meta models interact with meta models and so on…
This fractal network of modelling entities, so deep and yet so compact in a living organism, gives us the power to think, to model, to understand, to feel. To be conscious in all its colours.
This glorious universe of ours, creative to the core – with its alphabet of parts and the art of writing, has tapped away at the keyboard of evolution to create love sonnets and wars, haunting melodies and colourful fabrics, as the Sun sets and rises in cloud-peppered skies, a delicately balanced celebration of opposing forces, beliefs, and values.
Each player on this evolving stage is an open whole, interacting with other wholes to form new patterns, on and on – wholes forming parts, parts forming wholes. Level upon level of complexity and emergence, patterns within repeating patterns.
As we emerge from the Time Tunnel into the dappled forest, the pattern of light and dark seems less threatening. We have a feeling of not only belonging, but of being part of it all. I look at you – the separation of birth has healed, and the intervention of death is no longer final. The stone edifice has vanished…
|We can now begin our study of the body. Next step...|