For me, part of the appeal of these images is that they at once evoke the sensibilities of living cells and astronomical bodies—the “innerverse” viewed under a microscope and the universe viewed through a telescope. At both extremes we observe diverse parts that join together to make a whole, and we see the parts in relation to one another as well as the whole. My curiosity extends to both extremes, but lately my thoughts have been directed to the dynamics of biological systems, and these images prompted some observations that suggested a coincidence between the microscopic and the social.
In The Extended Phenotype published in 1982, British biologist Richard Dawkins introduced the idea that the effects of an animal’s genes or “phenotype” can stretch far into the environment. In 2016, science writer Ed Yong, writing in I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, gives examples of this noting that “…beaver genes build beaver bodies, but since those bodies go on to make dams, the genes are also redirecting the flow of rivers. A bird’s genes create a bird, but they also make a nest. My genes made my eyes, hands, and brain, and in doing so they also made this book.”
So while an animal’s genotype determines the physical characteristics of its offspring, it’s phenotype extends it’s traits into an “expression” or out-manifestation that has an affect on the environment. The good news I learned in a Physical Anthropology class is that, although specific genes are inherited, because human beings make considered choices, we can alter their expression, our phenotype—what manifests. One’s genetic endowment or genotype, therefore, is largely a predisposition rather than a sentence. And, because it’s the living organism as a whole that contributes (or not) to the next generation, what we do and how we live affects the genes we pass on. Now I don’t normally think of myself as a multitudinous being, but I understand that my body is constituted of atoms, molecules, cells, microbes and organs. I can feel my heart beating, my lungs breathing and when I bleed I know that a river runs through me. Nevertheless, in everyday living I regard myself as a singularity.
We have to tread lightly in extrapolating from biology to sociology, but in reading about the relationships between microbes, their animal hosts and ecosystems, I can’t help but think there are some lessons to learn here. Aside from our cells, in order to be healthy and grow to reproduce, the diverse billions of individual microbes that live inside us are constantly making decisions: “Is this new or unrecognizable entity a suitable dance partner or not?” “What would be the consequences of engagement or changing partners?” There’s a lot of feeding, moving around and carrying on of conversations, mostly about the neighbors and the neighborhood. The net result of this relating, both in conflict and in harmony, results in the development of communities of like-minded entities, internal “ecosystems” that constitute a survival strategy that has worked since life first appeared on the planet. And rarely, if ever, do we give it a thought.
Socially, might it be that the pressure to relate with diverse others is nature’s way of bringing us together—through conflict as well as harmony within nested ecosystems—to form a new whole entity? Call it “humanity” or “Gaia” or whatever, might our physical, mental and spiritual urges and diverse preferences constitute the phenotype of the global body? Our collective expression? Perhaps toward the development of a global brain? Since it’s founding and because, in part, of its diversity—which is an essential evolutionary ingredient—America has served as a crucible for the mingling of burning desires and differing beliefs, values and perspectives.
Microbiology informs us that the clash of values, ideas and preferences has been going on between microbes and cells for eons. It may not be comfortable and we might wish it to be otherwise, but just as the microbes inside us engage in a dance that ultimately sustains our bodies, so also we struggle to express our beliefs, values and perspectives so that one day we will open our eyes and realize that, through the union of commonly shared perceptions and objectives, we have constructed a global body that works for everyone.
The dynamic goings-on between the microscopic creatures that populate our bodies suggests to me that, within the crucible the “refinements” that are happening now, though they may be painful at times, are part of a larger process that requires us to stand up for our beliefs, values and perspectives. As in the above images, the pattern that persists across levels is one of diverse parts engaged in a dance to join in the construction of ecosystems such that their union creates a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a perspective that encourages patience and appreciation for the way things are, and it’s a call in Gandhi’s words: “…to be the change you wish to see in the world.” However small.
Evolution by natural selection depends on just three things: individuals must vary; those variations must be heritable; and those variations must have the potential to affect their fitness—that is, their ability to survive and reproduce. Variation, inheritance, fitness: if all three boxes are ticked, the engine of evolution whirrs into action, pumping out generations that are successively better adapted to their environment.
ABOUT THESE IMAGES
To make the first image I positioned a 4×5 camera over a light table, filled a tall one-quart photographic graduate with filtered water and set it under the lens. Using an eyedropper, I deposited drops of vegetable oil on the surface to form a “cell.” After some experimentation with lighting, I cut a hole in a sheet of black paper so it was a little larger than the circumference of the graduate and set it on the light table with the graduate in the middle. Immediately, this created the contrast between the bright center and dark bands.
To gain control over the composition and dust on the surface of the water, I substituted an electronic flash for the incandescent bulbs in the light box. Still there was dust, and it was visible on the surface because that was the point of critical focus. The solution was to work quickly, to cover the graduate with a piece of clear glass between exposures. With the cable release in hand and the shutter cocked, I stirred the water and watched the interaction. When the moment was right I removed the glass, made the exposure and quickly covered the graduate to prepare for the next shot. The more vigorously I stirred the water the greater the number and variation in the size of the cells.
The second image was made in the same way, but using an aquarium tank filled with water, rather than a graduate. This resulted in the plain white field. A full description of this process and more of the spherical images was published in LensWork Magazine #39 February-March, 2002.