Life isn’t about adjusting to one’s external environment

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Like you, I have been trained to believe that adaptation to environment is life. Something about the word ‘adaptation’ gives us the sense that it is the smart thing for an organism to do. And who can have a quarrel with ‘the environment’, the lovely blue and green brine in which we pickle, which leaks into us now and then and alters us to be better? So, when I read a paragraph that rubbished this view in an off-hand way, I was startled in the way other people’s insight could affect me in my teens.

The paragraph is in A Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit, who uses it to explain why Israel resisted its Arab brine. He writes: “The mid-nineteenth-century French physiologist Claude Bernard was the first to overturn the conventional understanding that life is an adjustment to the environment. Adjustment to the surrounding environment is death, argued Bernard; the phenomenon of life is that of preserving an internal environment contrary to an outside environment.”

This is a persuasive interpretation of Bernard’s observation: “The constancy of the interior environment is the condition of free and independent life.” This phenomenon later came to be called ‘homeostatis.’ His insight was that life is resistance to the external environment. A minutely perfected internal clockwork protects the body from the environment, which is actually very harsh.

If air on Earth, which is mostly nitrogen, breaks through the body’s protections, it will kill us. Pure oxygen, too, can kill us. An ambient temperature of 22° Celsius is pleasant, but the same thing inside our body will be the end of us. Life emerged on Earth, or perhaps it was seeded from another world but it bloomed here. Nevertheless, Earth is a lethal planet for all life, only somewhat more benign than other planets. Life survives in a vessel that does not ‘adjust’ to the environment, but defies it. This portents our colonization of other worlds. We have always lived on a toxic planet inside a self-regulatory suit.

You know that I am saying all this to drive home something else, but let me dwell on the analogy a bit longer.

The writer and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee, in an article in the New Yorker, explained how precarious the internal settings of the human body are. “Consider temperature: the normal human body maintains an extraordinarily narrow range—somewhere between ninety-seven and ninety-nine degrees (Fahrenheit)—despite enormous, often unpredictable variations in the environment. The level of sodium in your blood is tightly regulated between 135 and 145 milliequivalents per liter—a number controlled by exquisite sensors in the brain coupled with an equally accurate mechanism that retains or dispenses salt and water in the kidneys.”

This view of the human body reminds me of the definition of art by E.M. Forster that I have heard my mother chant all through my childhood—that art is something that possesses “internal harmony in the bosom of this disordered planet.” (I realize now that she always omitted ‘bosom,’ probably because the word was X-rated at home.) Art as resistance to its external environment is an explanation of pure art without sanctimony. Finally, a definition of art makes sense to me. And I can see why pure art is fated to be niche. Art that ‘adjusts’ to its circumstances is a kind of death. It transforms into something else—still enjoyable perhaps, but not art.

I am fascinated not by the internal harmony part—of art, or the human body, or everything that homeostasis now reminds me of.

That beautiful systems have internal harmony was never a surprise. I am fascinated by the disordered brine. And that a system is a system because it is not an extension of the universe, rather it has been designed in resistance to it.

The survival of Israel, too, was cultural homeostasis. Shavit writes that in the 1930s and 40s, Zionism came to the conclusion that its “surrounding environment is extremely cruel… Under these conditions, adjustment is death. The only way to maintain life is resistance.” And Israel came to be the “lonely desert fortress casting the shadow of awe on an arid land.”

Homeostasis also explains the meaning of an institution in a true democracy, why something is an institution only if it is independent. And why the US has institutions and India lacks them. American institutions have survived politics and a president who did not believe in them. They were built in resistance to their political environment. Indian institutions are too new to be sophisticated enough to maintain their own internal harmony. They have ‘adjusted’ to their environment, to a new India.

The same phenomenon also explains why movements that become too practical are doomed. Practicality is ‘adjustment’ to the environment. For instance, ‘agreeable’ feminists, who do not make men uncomfortable, are never as effective as those who have an ascetic focus on their agenda to resist a world created for men.

It may appear that ‘adjustment’ to circumstances can prolong a movement or a human entity. But that is a misunderstanding of evolution. We have two fallacies about evolution. One is that it is a progression. But in reality, evolution is merely change. The second fallacy is that evolution is an opportunistic transformation of life. What homeostasis tells us is that evolution is the death of a species. Something ends for something else to begin. You may say that is life; but it is actually the definition of death.

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