From One, Many. From Many, One.
An essay by Joshua T. Calkins-Treworgy
Author of “Roads Through Amelia”
Have you ever seen a mandala? Listened to the philosophical lectures of Alan Watts set to soothing music? When was the last time you sat and listened to a song that began with a single, lone note, before growing into an awe-inspiring tune? When last did the poetry of Edmund Vance Cooke stir in your breast the seed that blossomed into a smile?
It is a difficult thing to begin. So much weight rests on hooking the audience in, because you can lose them so quickly. That’s why I enjoy open questions at the start of a conversation, be it simple or complex; it grabs the listener or reader, begs an interaction, a response. A universe is birthed between my question and your answer, and forms as we engage, spawning whole systems of dialogue into stars and planets to be explored at our later leisure.
So now to another inquiry, time-tested and battle hardened: which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Start Small, Then Grow
Evolutionary biologists can answer that last one, and the really clever ones like Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying can be smartasses about it and explain that a kind of raptor gave life to a mutation that then later mutated in its own offspring to eventually, after X interceding adaptations, become the chicken. Hello, Mr. Crossed the Road, your offspring is my breakfast and you’ll go great at dinner with some fettuccine noodles and alfredo sauce.
The facts of the universe tell us that we begin our lives, as do all larger animals (not looking to the self-reproducing organisms here), with the collision of a single sperm infiltrating a single egg. Now sure, there’s twins and triplets and all sorts of exceptions there, but i before e, except after c, which we’ll watch get other exceptions too without handy little mnemonics. The point is, not long after that collision of creation, the singular cell expands and then divides, then expands, then those divide and they expand, et cetera, until we have a viable, fully formed, teeny tiny version of the original animal in question.
A lone entity, starting so small, becoming something more, composed of so many cells, yes. By the time we’re barely walking, we play host as well to innumerable teensy microorganisms, we’re practically mobile and self-driving ecosystems in pants. The human specimen goes from barely a concept to a host of microscopic worlds so fast, it rightly makes the head spin to consider it, really.
This very essay before your eyes was not so different. It began as a bit of intellectually curious flotsam floating around in my head, and was birthed when pen met paper to start jotting it all down, queer asides and everything. By the time it reaches you, it has gone through a growth spurt (typed from notebook to laptop), puberty (edits and revisions), and finally settled into its station (finished draft that you’re reading right now). Every song begins with a first note or chord, taking up extra dimensions of instrumentation or lyrical accompaniment, shifts in tempo and volume, to grow into the final piece as performed. Every illustration starts with the pencil or brush or pen or mouse making tiny marks, and building to the final presented piece. It always starts small, then grows.
Societies Do It, Too
Anthropologists have often remarked that the most successful and long-living civilizations tended to historically be the largest, with a diversity of peoples, climates, and tools for better living at their disposal. This isn’t a universal constant, mind you, but all societies, even small, tribal ones, begin with a tight-knit group who share an understanding of the world, then seek to expand their number. This is perhaps part of the underlying horror of tales like “Logan’s Run”, which sees its citizens quite literally ‘age out’ of the system at 30. Rather than allowing for an aging populace, the society of that fiction kills its citizens when they hit the Big 3-0, in order to maintain equilibrium. Obviously it’s fiction, but whatever nightmares we imagine present the dangers of being actualized. Never forget that.
In any event, in smaller tribal societies, a common ancestry is often used as the glue to hold them together. Of course, this can only go on so long, as nature has an honor code of its own to dissuade humans from inbreeding by means of birth defects and genetic malformation. Little King Joffrey’s sociopathy is just a fictional vessel for that message, one we as a species would do well to pay heed to. Conversely, we have records of what happens when the group organism known as a society grows too large: internal components break down, become corrupted or sickly. Sometimes a faction of ne’er-do-wells rises to prominence, and like a cancer, their unchecked growth collapses the whole bloody affair in an agonizing freefall. Should the society survive, it will fight tooth and nail to eliminate that disease in the early going if and when it comes sniffing around again.
Different Systems, Sharing Space
Consider too, if you will, how much of human history took place with many of these smaller societies being utterly alien to one another. Yes, they shared a planet, but until the last thousand years or thereabouts, they rarely had to worry about the ones who weren’t their immediate neighbors. Until naval expedition and expansion came along, we saw few examples of distant cultures clashing beyond expansion campaigns. Nowadays, however, the interconnectedness of people is mind-boggling. I can myself use 3 degrees of separation between myself and the current sitting President. It’s bizarre.
But back then as now, we humans have existed in a state of interactive balance with the world in which we live, and that relationship, like the one between ourselves and the microorganisms we personally host, has changed over time. Where once we used the oceans as fishing sources and natural barriers mostly, we now use them as waterways for international shipping and commerce. Where once we hunted and skinned wild game for furs, we now harvest cotton and shear sheep for wool, or create synthetic blends of fabrics to clothe ourselves.
And every society has different ways of making this relationship with our world work, each with its pros and cons. Like the human bodily systems, they share space with one another on this planet. The biggest difference, clearly, is that a person’s systems all work together to promote the human’s continuation, while societal systems tend to try to ‘win’ over other systems.
There’s a lesson to be learned in that difference…
Celebrate the Many, But Don’t Forget the One
Some might gleefully point out that my ramblings here seem to be jumping all over the place, like a single grain of rice dropped in a heated pan with no vegetable oil or water. Welcome, I say you, to my general thought process. I’ve happily detoured around the images of lycanthropes in half-plate armor splitting the heads of vampires gorily down the middle until just now, but be aware that such thoughts weave their way in and out, too. I save most of those for my fiction work, though. You see, the same mind that writes those Tamalarian Tales and Amelia City Stories also brings you this piece. Two separate systems of thought, housed inside the same skull. We cannot have one without the other, for they are undeniably linked. The individual, likewise, must not be lost in the press to insure the benefit of the collective. After all, without the singular, without 00, you never get to the plural, to 01. Without the first lonely cell dividing, those two don’t grow and further divide. The chicken never crosses the road, and the egg ceases to even exist.
We can take this line all the way back, my good reader, to The Big Bang. First, there was nothing. And then, quite abruptly and all at once, there was something. We have as a species within us the drive and capacity and tools to begin grappling in scientific disciplines with the foundational material and concepts that define existence its very self! But none of that happens if the group forgets that it takes a single notion, an individual, asking the right questions, in order for us to focus our collective efforts on reaching an answer.
Douglas Adams rather cheekily suggested that The Answer to the great question of life is ‘42’. Put another way, it’s 101010, and once again, you don’t get there without 00 and 01. We don’t get to the Many, without the One, and sometimes we only get that One when we bring together Many. Don’t believe me? Just ask your gut bacteria. They won’t answer in any language you’ll understand, and if they do, share those drugs with me, because I’m always up for a learning experience.