We’re thrilled to present “On Being and On Being the Right Size” in five parts for the next five weeks. You can read all the sections of the essay here.
I’m not as smart as I used to be.
It sounds like a weird boast, like talking about what a great athlete someone was before their knee blew out in high school. And maybe there is some of that. But here is how I know: There are blanks in my memory. Gray things, static and fuzz. Even when I concentrate, the connections don’t come as they once did. It’s like when you reach for something on a high shelf and your fingertips can gently manipulate it until it spins and rotates toward you and you can grab or tilt it until it tumbles into your hand. Now I reach up but my fingers don’t make contact or just barely brush against it. Enough to let me know it’s there but not to hold it. To tantalize and pain me.
Thomas uses insects to consider the process of thought in “On Societies as Organisms.” He writes that an individual ant has no mind, that it is but a single spark of thought, a “ganglion on legs. Four ants together, or ten, encircling a dead moth on a path, begin to look more like an idea.” They move the dead moth toward the hill but only after “the dense mass of thousands of ants … blackening the ground” fully become a mind, “thinking, planning, calculating. It is an intelligence, a kind of live computer, with crawling bits for its wits.”
How many ants compose my mind? I worry I’m the dead moth. Or maybe my mind has become like the termites Thomas also describes. “Two or three termites in a chamber,” he explains, “will begin to pick up pellets and move them from place to place, but nothing comes of it; nothing is built. As more join in, they seem to reach a critical mass, a quorum, and the thinking begins.” I wonder about the theory here. I think what happens may have less to do with the number of termites than the number of pellets. As Thomas elaborates: “They place pellets atop pellets, then throw up columns and beautiful, curving, symmetrical arches, and the crystalline architecture of vaulted chambers is created.” The symmetry comes if we let it, or if the termites let it, in other words.
That dropped horse that Haldane supposes? In the same essay, he writes that an “insect … is not afraid of gravity; it can fall without danger.” This has to do with ratios of weight to surface area. An animal ten times larger by height than another doesn’t weigh ten times more, but a thousand. It’s the weight that really piles up. So the insect doesn’t fear gravity and neither does the mouse. But the insect, if it were capable of such emotions, would be terrified of water and, specifically, of surface tension. The dewy water that covers someone leaving a bath, Haldane says, is about one-fiftieth of an inch in depth and weighs a pound. But a wet fly must “lift many times its own weight and, as everyone knows, a fly once wetted by water or any other liquid is in a very serious position indeed.” As everyone knows. I didn’t know it. I feel like these are different things. What this means is that, for the insect, even leaning over for a drink is “as great a danger as a man leaning out over a precipice in search of food. If it once falls into the grip of the surface tension of the water—that is to say, gets wet—it is likely to remain so until it drowns.”
What had I leaned over into? Was it something I drank, or was it over the precipice?
If you need to cure something, you must first understand what it is.
Ultimately, maybe, nothing was really wrong with me. The leading theory was that I developed a spontaneous allergy to the antibiotic I was taking, Bactrim. My body decided to treat it as a foreign invader, and put out a notice to close up shop, to be done with the experiment of me. I keep restarting this sentence, swapping out “body” and “person.” A body can develop a spontaneous allergy. It will accept a medication, do just fine, and then, without any particular cause or warning, decide to tolerate it no more. There are tests one can take to find out for certain but the doctors didn’t feel it was important.
“Make sure you say you are allergic.”
“Maybe sulfa. It’s sulfa-based.”
“So I’m allergic to sulfa? Is that what that means?”
“We don’t know. But you should avoid it.”
Thomas writes about something akin to this in “Germs.” It isn’t the disease, the invading bacteria or whatever biological interloper, that kills us, generally. They want to establish a new home, not to bust up the joint. Rather, “it is our response to their presence that makes the disease. Our arsenal for fighting off bacteria are so powerful, and involve so many different defense mechanisms, that we are in more danger from them than from the invaders.”
I don’t feel I need to reach too far, to stretch very much to see the metaphors here: how we treat each other, nations, and on and on. “We live,” Thomas writes, “in the midst of explosive devices; we are mined.”
I can’t help but think of everything that sentence means and could mean, swapping the form and purpose of mined; adjective, verb, possessive declaration. We are full of small, vicious explosives, after all. And so, we dig, we shovel and chisel to find those things inside us, pull them out and up to be measured and weighed. Still, at any moment we may be forced to that precipice, to fall down through the empty shafts, where mice are dazed and horses splash.